The Cottage Montage: The Summer House at Argyle Shores, PEI

We always wished we had a cottage growing up. I’m not sure where the notion came from because we didn’t know anyone that had one. We’d never been to one—until the soupy summer a motley crew of extended family ended up at a hunting shack of sorts near Orangeville. It belonged to perhaps a great uncle? What I do remember is that it was a wood panelling special of the 70s with zero fanciness. A Stephen King set at best. My sister cried because there was no TV. It was so dark during the day you needed to turn the lights on (with your sleeve pulled over your hand, lest a tarantula or wall-climbing snake attacked–) and it smelled like my aunt’s wet cocker spaniels and gorgonzola. Though, I probably didn’t know what gorgonzola was at age 8.


Luckily that experience didn’t cloud my shiny cottage future. I am still attracted to the lazy lifestyle, mesquite and marinade-heavy menu and wet dogs that are generally synonymous with cottages. I read Cottage Life as though I own one. We watch Sarah’s (Richardson’s) Cottage and hatch design plans. I like the intense Canadiana behind them, the Hudson Bay swag, the antlers, the ships in bottles, the mismatched cutlery, the ambitious “learn astronomy” plans via a clunky telescope, the bird guides at the ready, the bags of potato chips, tchotchkes, Scrabble boards missing “Q” and cards stuck together by a long-ago root beer mishap.


It’s a glorious departure from rules, diets, schedules, traditional exercise, Netflix and sophisticated reading (bring on the Judy Blume, gossipy mags and summer fluff). Itineraries revolve around the sun, shade, gin runs and the shift from the dock to feeding a fire long into the night.


Kim and I decided that we’d spin our annual trip east to visit her parents in Prince Edward Island from the norm. Also, selfishly, we couldn’t imagine sleeping on her parents new pull-out couch again. We’ve renamed that cursed thing the Taco. It envelops you in the night, pressing its coils into your hips and ribs until you find yourself trapped in the mattress valley. The only thing that falls asleep in the Taco are my arms and legs, not me.


To avoid the Taco accommodations, a cottage just made sense. Since Kim’s parents downsized to a condo, Murder She Wrote can be heard from any inch of the square footage. Also heard at 6:30 am: Kim’s mom unloading the dishwasher, vaccumming and tending to the recycling—directly beside the Taco room. The reprieve is the balcony, though it is skinny. Dominated by geraniums, if four people are on it at once, you have to sit like you are riding a bus, in a line, straight across.


So, we rallied the siblings with the cottage concept and booked the Summer House near the Northumberland Straight in Argyle Shores. In addition to Kim’s brother, sister, brother-in-law—we’d be possibly entertaining 100 people for their parents’ 60th wedding anniversary on the Sunday. When we innocently placed a “Anniversary Cake and Coffee Reception” ad in the Stratford church bulletin, we had no idea that it was circulated to three other churches! Had we just invited the entire island? I had visions of a Papal visit—except it would be Kim and I waving to the masses from the cottage balcony with a bbq flipper and Rolling Rocks.


We did have enough baked goods to feed all the disciples for sure. Judy, Kim’s mother, has a freezer routinely packed solid with Amish friendship loaves. She triple wraps them in foil and at first glance, they look like dozens of cocaine bricks. And then there are the oatmeal raisin cookies, cinnamon pinwheels and biscuits to be drizzled with molasses. Her ‘granola bars’ are chocolate bars in disguise. Her bran and date muffins are delicious laxatives in muffin wrappers. She is like a factory outlet of baked goods.


We arrived at the Summer Garden Summer House in two vehicles (50% of the load being pastries). Gail and Joe Kern, the cottage owners, embraced us in true Maritime style—with hugs. We later learned that the ‘retired’ couple were part of WWOOF—World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. The organization has created a network for travellers with a back-to-the-land curiosity with outposts from New Zealand to the Netherlands. In exchange for 30 hours of work on the farm (which can involve everything from sheep shearing to fruit tree pruning), WWOOFers get a snug place to sleep and often, meals included.

Gail and Joe were pure loveliness, inviting Kim and I in for a glass of wine and conversation on a few occasions. They’d stop dead in their tracks, regardless of what they were doing to ensure that we were okay or help better our stay.


Now, if only they could build tiny mosquito machine guns. They were vicious and travelled in a cloud in Argyle Shores. Gail and Joe had long adapted and succumbed to permanently wearing mozzie shirts with the hoods—startling us at first as we thought angry beekeepers or fencers had found us in the woods.


The Summer House was just as it appeared online—which was an enormous relief. Kim and I know only too well about misleading hotel pictures, i.e. Alexandria, Egypt where the bed looked like a body was stuffed under the mattress. It was actually humped up like a turtle shell. The room that was supposed to have a King bed, en suite and malecon view but instead had three single turtle beds and a bathtub down the hall that was so rusted and ringed you’d have tetanus or hydrophobia or something after spending any time in it.


But, back to the Summer House. The sun was actually shining—the skies were indigo blue (the only time this happened during our week there)—Kim and I were ready to move in, forever. There was a jar of homemade organic granola on the counter, PEI organic coffee beans, a jar of honey from nearby Canoe Cove. The fridge was stocked with cartons of orange juice and milk. The bathroom had verbena soaps that left you smelling like a slice of lemon meringue pie. There were red clay and kelp soaps from Moonsnail.

Kim’s mom quickly set up shop in the kitchen, assessing where all the pots and pans were. The cottage even came with an oyster shucker!

All the cottage staples were here—books on sea glass, lighthouses, fishmonger memoirs, Maritime cookbooks, dominos, kites, Chatelaine magazines, wildflower guides, a baseball glove, a kite. The DVD collection covered my top ten classics from Steel Magnolias to The Big Chill. Judy and Earl were rest assured to learn that the satellite picked up Murder She Wrote and Coronation Street. Whew. It would be a merry time after all.


Base camp was gorgeous. The view was rolling jade, many mornings the fog hung in the fields like low-lying clouds. Hummingbirds jetted around the deck, a token fox streaked past.

And it rained. Like, for 36 hours straight. The mottled sky brightened to an elephant grey during the cake and coffee affair. Thankfully not all of the devout church attendees who received the bulletin came to the cottage. It was a very full house though, full of that east coast unity and bloodlines that knot as tight as moored ships.


While the Kenny’s carried on with euchre and bridge games, maintaining stamina with Clamato and boxed chocolates, I ran to the shoreline, red dirt streaked on my calves. Like Ireland, the rain and moody skies of PEI seem to make the place all the more authentic.

The roadside was dotted with burnt orange bursts of devil’s paintbrush, coltsfoot, yarrow and purple tufted vetch. Only the ravens carried on as per usual in the soggy afternoons.


Nearing the end of our stay we tripped out to Victoria-by-the-Sea (a twenty minute pastoral drive). The year-round population of the village is just under 200—how ideal! Though the 2% chance of sunshine and 98% chance of bitchy mosquitoes is off-putting.


We did as tourist brochures dictated and visited the Island Chocolate shop, Red Sand studio and The Studio Gallery. We tried the potato fudge for $1 and ordered deep fried bar clams with horseradish aioli at the Lobster Barn Pub.


We drank blueberry beer with Homer the cat at the Landmark café curling and poked around the lobster traps at the marina. As rain pelted down I quickly snapped a picture of PEI’s biggest tree (an American Elm with a circumference of 21 feet!).


The Summer House Summer Garden was as a cottage should be. A place quickly entrenched deep in our minds, a place to drift to with a smile, in the moments before sleep.

Even if it’s in the Taco, or on a turtle-shaped mattress.

Wanna stay? Check out the cottage availability. $150/night for 4 guests, $15 plus HST for additional guests.

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Fronterra Farm Camp Brewery: Intelligent Camping in Prince Edward County

I love camping and the joie de vivre that comes in the form of flaming marshmallows, ankles sticky with insect repellant and scorched weenies stabbed on a foraged stick. Lately though, falling to sleep on an inflatable mattress makes me instantly dream of chiropractors. We’re not even being authentic anymore with the maxi pad thin two ounce inflatable Thermarest—now it’s the big fat double blow-up and a circus show attempt to wedge it inside the two-man tent. Which is like head-butting a Sumo wrestler slick with butter into a phone booth.


When I first sniffed out the Fronterra Farm Camp Brewery website, I knew that I had found Intelligent Camping at long last. We’re talking canvas prospector tents that you can walk around in—none of this on-your-knees, hair-teased-up from the two-foot high nylon ‘ceiling’ of the tent like you’ve run a balloon wildly back and forth over your head. The Fronterra tents are tall enough for a basketball net (a trampoline even)—they have wood floors, a King bed, armoire, distressed leather couch and arm chair for crying out loud. Woodsy sensibility. Frontier living for those who like the spoils too.

Though we were still sorting laundry and knocking the brick red dirt of Prince Edward Island out of our shoes, Kim and I decided to head back up to Prince Edward County, our future homeland, for a real estate prowl. I was stuck on Fronterra’s luxury tent renderings—we’d have all the accoutrements of camping without the backache! Yes, we could camp at Sandbanks Provincial Park for $40 a night, but $185 seemed reasonable to me for a fabricated but authentic pioneer experience. You could probably still earn a Girl Guide badge. And snore away in a King bed.


Somehow we hacked Fronterra’s online booking system. I was thrilled that we could nab a tent for Canada Day so last minute. I couldn’t type in our credit card info fast enough. A day later the call came—Jens and Inge, the founders of Fronterra, expressed concern. Somehow we had beat the system and had been able to book two nights despite the reservation blocks they had put in place. Fronterra had been socked in by rain and efforts to get the tents up and the kitchens and shower tricked out with running water had been stalled. Jens had been dumping wood chips everywhere (repurposed from Ontario Hydro tree fellings), like sandbags, to absorb Mother Nature’s pissy June attitude. Their intention to open the first week of June was foiled by soupy woods. We understood—we had been rained on every single day in PEI too.


“We can offer you the tented lodge with kitchen and en suite the first night—but on night two, we are double-booked. You could stay in the second tent, without water and toilet—for free. We insist, that is, if you still want to come.”


Kim and I didn’t flinch—it was a no-brainer, YES! We quickly recounted all the places we’d slept without such amenities—although the Posada Jasayma in Tayrona National Park, Colombia somehow found a toilet seat for us that we didn’t question. How do you find a toilet seat in the jungle?

When we arrived at Fronterra owners Jens and Inge (and burbling baby Eska in a candy-cane striped onesie) embraced us as though we had travelled across the Prairies on horseback for months. Their enthusiasm was contagious. They apologized profusely for the rain and the muddy track. Inge offered to shuttle us back and forth in her Subaru Crosstrek (or, we could go with Jens on the tractor to get really farmy); all to save the Saab from a Dakar Rally-type mud bath. Kim was happy to take advantage of the shuttle. In the near future guests will be able to drive directly to a lot near the tents—just a 400m walk with a pushcart along the meadow of tufted vetch, Queen Anne’s Lace and flitting swallowtails. Hardly an effort.


We walked down to the tents first, to take it all in as intended. The world’s greatest migration of mosquitoes had arrived and greeted us with a full-face assault. Had they had followed us from PEI where they threatened to leave us anemic? Relentless rain and bitchy mosquitoes are elements that can’t be neatly arranged and we gave up on capris and flip flops for mosquito unfriendly wear—hoods and jeans and eau de OFF.

I loved our voluntary solitary confinement immediately. If you have ever camped at a provincial park in Ontario, you know that ‘camping’ is a non-stop parade of cars, accidental car alarms going off, music, people yapping like their tent walls are made of brick—basically, everyone carrying on as they would at home, but somewhat more obnoxiously. All through the night, the call of a whip-poor-will is interrupted by someone with a saggy air mattress that needs to be plugged in and re-poofed. Beer bottles are clanking, someone laughs like Woody Woodpecker—the idyllic moment is being shared with 300 people, 5 barking dogs, 6 crying kids and a dozen couples ready for divorce.

At Fronterra, there’s 50 acres of SPACE. At week’s end, Jens assured the second tent would be complete, with plans to construct the third and create three top-shelf suites for the summer of 2015. The ambitious future plan is 10 prospector tents and (spoiler alert) if permits and karma allows—perhaps a floating tented lodge in the bay that their property snugs up against. Since their stay at the Four Rivers floating lodge in Cambodia during a year of unbridled travel pre-Eska, the gusty, life-by-the-bullhorns couple have been long-scheming and wildly inspired. Spin the globe and randomly pick a spot—Jens and Inge have been there. From Ethiopia to New Zealand to zany spa treatments involving electroshocks in Budapest. They’ve migrated from Fernie, BC (Jens) and the Laurentians (Inge) and found gorgeous common ground amongst the ironwoods, the foundation for their vision in Prince Edward County.


The heritage-minded accommodations are just a quarter of the dream. The permaculture gardens are lush with over 160 heirloom veg and edible flowers. They have chickens laying dozens of eggs to keep campers’ cast iron griddles snapping with fried huevos.


Jens, keen on retracing the Barley Days route, has planted a crop of hops with the intent to build an on-site brewery where guests can experience the entire plant to pint process. Better yet—there’s talk of fly-fishing lessons, a beer-centric spa and molten hot saunas! Kim and I have already signed up for the beer workshops of the future—an intimate experience that I know will be engaging with Jens at the helm. This guy can move swiftly from settlement history to knot-tying to Bolivia to plumbing issues to stouts and fire starting.


Visiting Fronterra in the future will be a total immersion in simplicity, learning, self-sufficiency, being, recalibrating. Jens hopes guests will disconnect, but, solar power to recharge will be available.


All the frills are here. The private open sky showers (inhale cedar boards deeply here) are hot enough to boil lobsters. There are super plush towels and lavender-studded bars of Scottish milled soap. And, to Kim’s hair-styling delight—a mirror!

Nature’s alarm clock is at the ready—woodpeckers are knocking at dawn. Dusk is a fireball sunset show as the sun filters its honey beams through the woods in front of the tents. Fireflies emerge on cue—an entire day passes with just birds and hunger as beacons.


We felt very Farley Mowat. That is, if Farley ever made guacamole with just-plucked cilantro from the gardens. Or, foraged with a beer (as seen in photo above). Maybe more Les Stroud—like, lazy Les Stroud, with a lighter and a stack of wood from our shed drier than Chelsea Handler’s humour.

For the urbanite not wanting to invest in camping equipment (because it’s not just a tent and sleeping bag—it’s a domino list of stuff from clothespins to Coleman stoves to water jugs and coolers), you can almost cheat by ‘camping’ at Fronterra. The kitchen is stocked with all the essentials—cast iron pans, strainer, Wiltshire knives, bottle opener, wine and beer glasses, ice box (cooler), a bodum…just bring a stick of butter, ice and a few bottles from Karlo Estates and The Grange.

The only disappointment during our stay at Fronterra was my coffee-making skills. I’ve been too far removed from my bodum days in Toronto. Do you think I could figure out the perfect coffee-water ratio? I made dreaded coff-tea (ie. Is this coffee or is it tea?) two days in a row—even with the most robust Nicaraguan beans going. As a last ditch effort (after watering nearby undergrowth with the crappy hot beige water) I tried Wolfgang Puck one-cup coffee sachets (like tea bags). Worse. Suggestion: learn bodum ratio or, go to Tall Poppy in nearby Wellington for a Phil & Sebastian drip and round it out with a cinder block brownie or lemon square.


Crappy coffee aside, the unexpected thrill was Inge picking us up at their farmhouse to shuttle us to our site with a bucket of chilling Veuve Cliquot strapped into the front seat (baby Eska strapped in the back—both precious cargo). Jens and Inge were so nervous that all the elements out of their control (ie. Dakar Rally entry to camp, no official signage (yet), oppressive mosquitoes, lack of running water or toilet on our second night) would disappoint us. They wanted to ensure that we had the ultimate experience—one we would brag about to friends. They wanted to create a place and time that we would yearn to return to. Done!

The champagne was popped  (we all voted against sabrage-style) in front of the handsomely constructed tent as the sun lowered her belly in the treetops. This dream had been nearly 10 years in the making. Earlier, I had asked Jens about the copper band that he wore just above his elbow. He told us it was a daily reminder, to keep his promise…something he had committed to in Ethiopia a decade ago. This was it.


As glasses were filled, Inge told us that we were their very first guests. Ever. How often does that happen? I’d been to Jimmy’s coffee shop on the opening day and some launch party for a bar on Queen West—but, to be the first ever guests to sleep in the prospector tents? I loved that we had become an integral part of the camp’s history and guaranteed long lineage.

Joie de vivre, joie de Veuve. The generous spirit and infectious dream-chasing of Jens and Inge is something to marvel. Go sleep there. Talk to them about living dreams out loud. They’ve created something beautiful—and lucky for us, they’re sharing it.

Fronterra Farm Camp Brewery–Go!

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Microadventure: Prince Edward County

Have you ever worried that maybe you’ve over-romanticized a place? Did nostalgia and gauzy honeymoon love make it something it wasn’t?

The last (and only time in this decade) that Kim and I were in Prince Edward County was a miserable September weekend in 2010. The skies were bruised with clouds and rain spit on us the entire time. Winter felt like it was breathing down our tanned summer necks too soon. We drove around the County on a whim with a crude map and followed even cruder signs to the emerging wineries in Wellington. We hadn’t booked a hotel and spent a few hours backing out of B&B’s with no vacancy, crappy panelled cottages that smelled like wet dog and instant coffee and lacklustre waterfront hotels. The Waring House was the perfect weather shelter with a Jacuzzi tub and on-site pub (check, check!).


We loved PEC from the get-go, despite the drizzle and slop. It’s hung in the recesses of our mind like a retired jersey. There was a hesitation we were nervous to address. What if it wasn’t what we painted it to be? (And, in our nostalgic minds, all the colours–oils even–were streaked across the canvas like fireworks). What if we were just glassy-eyed from Malbec and our proposed area of relocation was a lunchbox letdown?


Whew. Crisis averted. We are even deeper in the love quicksand now with our pastoral affair. We picked up a stack of local glossies and real estate guides before lunch. I was already in fast-forward mode, dog-earing pages, telling Kim about the local farm where we could go see alpacas get sheared. September was the big cheese festival in Picton. In the fall we could go to the observatory and help band migrating saw-whet owls. We could sleep in prospector tents and learn how to make beer and pluck our own greens at Fronterra.

Yeah, hooked.

The County is vibrating with everything from leggy wines to sausage makers to beekeepers to lavender fields. The entire area is perfumed by lilac forests. There are cutesy post offices, tiny library branches, bike trails and independent bookstores (wow!). Kim pictured us stand-up paddle boarding and walking the 49km Millennium trail end-to-end with some re-fuel stops offering Brut.

The thing is, PEC is a hotbed of creativity. Everyone here is chasing a dream or already sinking their teeth into it. There are countless galleries, colourful cafes, bike shops and over 40 wineries. There are bed and breakfast owners building octagon-shaped homes with straw bale insulation. North America’s first off-grid vineyard is here. Karlo Estates is North America’s first vegan certified winery. Stuff is going on. People network here and know each other by their dog and beat-up pick-up. The passion is tangible—this is a community populated with a surplus of talent, knowledge, nerdy obsessions and ambition. We want to live there.

There’s a silent handshake in PEC, a collective agreement to help buoy everyone in full dream pursuit. The very land is appreciated for its bounty and I believe, will be protected at all costs from wind turbines or horizon-clotting high rises. As we drove from Carrying Place to Bloomfield, we noticed several barn walls acting as open-concept galleries.


The Barn Quilt Project was formed in late 2013 in recognition of Ontario’s disappearing landscapes: old timber-frame barns and farms. The movement kickstarted in Ohio in 2001, and has had a bucolic ripple effect. There are over 60 ‘barn quilts’ across the County, most measuring eight square feet. Pulled from traditional quilting patterns, the design of a single quilt block is painted on MDO (medium density overlaid) plywood. They create a true rambling outdoor gallery—you can even pick up a map and follow the trail.

Kim gushed over all the leaning barns—all that precious barn board! Her woodworker brain was on fire with possibility.

Obviously, as owners of a 153-year-old stone cottage, we pride ourselves in being caretakers of history. Seeing neglected barns being repurposed as gallery spaces, airbnb hotspots and wineries is a full circle win.

The Owl’s Nest B&B


For our microadventure, we had very micro time to suck up the macro scenery and scout out real estate. Our home base was the Owl’s Nest B&B in Carrying Place. Janna and Jake have created a homesteader chic suite amongst the stands of lilacs. The welcoming committee are Pajamas and Slippers (not to put on, but they will be on you). The dogs are as affable as the owners who immediately invited us in to check out their main living quarters (wow!). Janna was quick to write out her faves in the area (I love when residents are such proud ambassadors) and we liked the idea of beer-battered perch at the Agrarian in Bloomfield. Ten years ago there was talk of the “100 Mile Diet.” Here? It’s the 10 mile diet, or, one mile with the owners sourcing as close to the restaurant as possible. (There’s even a market downstairs from the Agrarian where you can stock up on hotel room charcuterie and cheese.


We dumped our bags inside the Nest (not before grazing on half a Mason jar of complimentary house made granola studded with cashews and dried apricots). The fridge was generously stocked with milk, cream, OJ, fresh eggs, strawberry preserves and half a loaf of whole wheat bread. In the freezer there were black bean and egg breakfast burritos laced with cheese and chili if we wanted—yes! We needed more time to eat!). The space is the perfect crash pad with coffee, tea, hot cocoa, toaster oven and stove top. It’s a B&B but without that awkward morning situation of small talk with other guests, or sleepily conversing with owners. You’re in charge of breakfast here.

The shower is a rainfall dream (Janna, a mad potter, has tricked out everything in clay here–from the shower tiles to the lamps to the coffee mugs), the bed a total cloud to sleep upon. The extras are all here: a selection of herbs, hot Dijon, soya sauce (for the sushi set), a small cooler for daytrippers, flashlights, bug spray, live clean body lotion, alba honeydew shampoo and a fun collection of books. The categories were a jumble—everything from philosophy to carnival worker memoirs, The World According to Gorp to How to Knit Your Own Dog.

I’m skipping ahead, but, I’m the writer here, so I’m in charge. That night we had a laugh going through Janna and Jake’s in-house DVD collection. What a gender blend of The Family Guy and the Sopranos to Bellydance Techniques, Yoga by Candlelight, Sex in the City, Fleetwood Mac in concert and Terminator. (We settled on Sideways as the vino-centric movie seemed appropriate and necessary viewing).

We were totally kitted out at the Owl’s Nest and hated to leave the zen-oozing grounds, but…

DSCF9251Karlo Estates

Kim and I have a picture on the bedside table of us in the just-opened barn studio space of Karlo Estates from 2010. The upstairs loft was full of easels and paintings in various stages. The surrounds made you want to paint alpacas and inhale (not the paint—it smells like history and legend at Karlo).


In 2010 we bought a bottle of Malbec that was like drinking red brick and horse blankets. Nothing has come close since. We drank it back in my Annex apartment by the fire, probably listening to Jann Arden and Tucker Finn on repeat. We celebrate a lot of things, chronically, so, the occasion in particular that made us open the bottle is amiss, but, it’s reassuring to know that in the near future we’ll be in closer proximity to the liquid velvet that they bottle.


When we walked in to the tasting room I tried to not be all teenage-girl-Justin-Bieber-screamer-like, and elbowed Kim as we passed Doug Gilmour. Doug Gilmour! My dad is still envious that I met Janet Jones (Gretzky) back in highschool (skipping out before exams to go for Shirley Temples at Callahan’s). She signed my fluorescent pink Vuarnet t-shirt and I think my dad paid me $20 bucks for it. Still has it too. Crap, I should have had Doug sign my tee or blot me with red wine.


Calm, cool and as collected as early morning wine tastings allow you to be, we allowed congenial Karlo staff member Liza to walk us through a proper tasting with Little Bug, the resident Karlo cat, curling around our wine glasses. The nibbles here really put the other wineries in the dust. Liza paired the flight with varietal IQ, laughter, asiago, cheddar, bleu, garlic stuffed olives and fat walnuts. The Sangiovese took my first place ribbon while Kim leaned toward the cab franc and Quintus blend. The VanAlstine white port (yes, there is such a divine thing) with a bite of bleu cheese was a surprising encounter. Fireside, lakeside, bedside, anywhereside, this port-style wine is like Riesling’s sweeter and sexier cousin.

And then, you know, sometimes it is about being in the right place at the right time, with garlic breath from that garlic-stuffed olive that seemed great at the time. With a Cheshire cat smile, Doug pulled us into his circle with a generous pour and  introduced us to his sophisticated line-up of Gilmour Wines: Corazon (“heart” in Spanish– a broad-shouldered tobacco and dark chocolate red), Orus (“leader”—think tangerine, silk, melons and meadows), and, your new summer prerequisite: Maddison (named after his daughter) rose. This one is the al fresco ticket.


We left Karlo knowing that we’d had a rare sneak peek on the dynamic partnership between co-founder and owner Sherry Karlo and Doug. Why be legendary in just one niche (Sherry is a visual artist with serious accolades while Doug and his #93 Leafs jersey need little intro.)? Even rock ‘em-sock ‘em hockey player Kim would agree that a sun-soaked vineyard and conversation over pinot grigio is a palatable transition from the adrenalin and sweat-choked arena locker room (Though Doug still hangs out near the ice, coaching the Kingston Frontenacs.)


Somehow we squeezed in The Grange, Three Dog Winery and smoked meat sandwiches with briny pickles at the Agrarian. We’ll have to return for the beer-battered perch on a bun (sold out). The place transforms into a speakeasy on weekends—another reminder of the ever-present coolness of the County.

Before turning homeward bound (a three hour slog), we drove around Consecon and Fish Lake, Ameliasburgh, Sophiasburgh (and a few other burghs) nodding in agreement that we’d be mentally well-nourished and stimulated in the County. We’re ready to take pastoral to the next level. Yes, there will be rosemary growing, beehives abuzz and, one of us will probably be glassblowing in no time. This is what happens here.


So, now we just need a place with a sumptuous sunset view, on some body of water (pond, lake, creek), maybe walking distance to a winery and wood-fired pizza oven. Polished cement floors with radiant heating, a Japanese soaker tub, some Carrera marble, fieldstone fireplace, loft bedroom, bookshelf with one of those sliding ladders, a Wolf stove, a workshop that is a little taller than Smurf-height for Kim, floor-to-ceiling windows that retract and open up to a cedar deck and that above-mentioned mill pond, lake, burbling creek…that’s all.

We definitely need a place with an outdoor fire pit so we can look up at those stars and watch them realign as they always do for us.

Stay tuned.

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The Skinny on Aruba

We left home at 3:15am, our brains like cotton candy from sleep debt and our minds surfing on surges of pre-trip adrenalin.

Delirious and uncaffeinated, we stopped at a Tim Horton’s en route. They are marketing red velvet “muffins” now? I was torn between a pretzel bagel and a carrot orange muffin when the oh-so-helpful night cashier barked, “Get the carrot. It’s the best and I don’t like nothin’.” It became my line for the week.

We felt a bit punch drunk queuing up at the United Airlines gate at YYZ. Talk about no frills service. The airline has eliminated seat back entertainment entirely. The flight attendants took cranky to the next level—not even smiles are available anymore. The drink service (oh wow, complimentary water or soda—but that’s it—not even a tiny packet of crappy pretzels or stale cookies with your beverage anymore) was quickly interrupted by turbulence. When a woman in 32B asked politely for tea, the sour attendant (who sounded like she’s sucked on car mufflers half her life) said, “We all have to sit down now. It’s gonna get real bad.” Nice reassurance. There was turbulence, yes, but nothing compared to the 6-year-old kickboxer seated behind me, violently playing with her headlocked My Little Pony.


But, fast forward to Orangestaad, Aruba, the whole point. The Duty Free (named the “Dufry” for reasons unknown) welcomed us with Haig Club scotch shots. We made fast friends with two New Jersey broads who were impressed with our ability to seek out free Scotch before we had even grabbed our baggage.


Our immersion into the liquid sun and crushing heat of Noord was immediate. Our taxi driver kindly took us to a Chinese supermarket to pick up a case of beer (we would soon learn that all the supermarkets are Asian owned and sell everything from Bolognese Lays chips to sushi to KitKat yogurt to wheels of Gouda the size of Goodyear tires). After dumping our bags in our villa and exchanging jeans for bikinis, we found our place poolside. Two inked-up Brazilian boys in Quiksilvers, as brown and oiled as coffee beans, were quick to offer us their leftover grilled chicken and spicy sausage straight from the grill. Yes, we could ease into this. The guys had a solid soundtrack of Queen, Joan Osborne (whatever happened to her? What if God was one of us….Bread and the Smiths. Finally, Celine Dion didn’t make the equatorial cut. Lime parakeets blurred by and called out alongside Freddy Mercury and the troupials (a flashy cousin of our oriole).

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We rented a perfect pad with a kitchenette in Washington ($1,200 CAD) with just eight villas sharing a limestone-tiled courtyard and pool. We were more than happy to take up loungey residence outside the mad tourist real estate of Eagle and Palm Beach.


DSCF8490Eagle is a jammed stretch of low rise hotels (Holiday Inn, Radisson, Occidental) while the all-inclusive high-rise hotshots like the Ritz, Marriot and Rui, monopolize Palm Beach. This neon chunk of Aruba was quickly crossed off our list. I’m forever amazed that people jump on planes and fly seven hours only to seek out Starbucks, the Hard Rock Café, Cinnabon and Hooters. On my first morning run I nearly fell flat to see the likes of KFC, Dunkin’ Donuts, Wendy’s, Burger King and Domino’s Pizza.


Much of the island has been massaged by North American’s appetite and colonially rubbed by Holland (*I have no complaints about the mecca of Dutch cured meat, salty black licorice, stroopwafels and cheese available everywhere). But, there’s a reason Aruba is popular and cruise ships barf out thousands of passengers four times a week—the sea and sky is surreal. It’s arid—you could bet your nest egg it’s not going to rain during your vacation. There are no mosquitoes or pesky flies or bitchy sand fleas. As the Aruban license plates suggest—it is “One Happy Island.”


The sand (and, we are self-titled beach experts) is like cornstarch here—so fine and el blanco—it’s whiter than the Kindle paperwhite. So white (dare I complain) that you can’t even read on the beach because of the glare.


Tradewinds keep sweat licked off your skin before it even has a chance to make itself known. The trademark Divi Divi tree doubles as a compass. Follow the direction of the Divi tree—the tradewinds have blown them all into a southwesterly orientation.


The sun is giant and reliable. Sunsets are like watching the apple drop on New Year’s Eve on Times Square. It’s massive and radiant and an acceptable reason to pop a champagne cork or pop the big question.

As we watched the sky move from Tiffany to mauve from our sandy audience seats, Kim and I marvelled at how different this trip was for us. How easy! We only had to unpack once—we weren’t hopping around solar-powered beach huts every few days. At night, we weren’t tucking in mosquito nets with army cadet precision or hosing ourselves down with DEET. We could actually drink the tap water! (When you know you can’t drink the tap water, you inevitably go into panic mode and end up buying more than ever). Our villa had endless hot water—hot enough to boil lobsters. In fact, the coldest setting of our Aruban shower was still HOTTER than Colombia’s ‘hottest’ shower. And instead of a Grandma floral soap bar the size of a dieter’s pad of butter, we were issued a Costco-sized bar of Ivory. We had towels for the pool, the beach, for showering. Face cloths even. We laughed thinking of our stay in Tayrona National Park where our toilet didn’t even have a seat.

ATM’s in Aruba actually had money in them. We didn’t have to notify the Canadian embassy of our travels. We didn’t need any sketchy immunizations or Dukarol cocktails pre-trip. No bank-breaking anti-malaria pills prescriptions to fill. Our villa had Netflix for crying out loud! We were kitted out with a Cuisinart coffee maker, a Hamilton Beach blender, a Weber grill, air con (ugh—also, why do people fly seven hours to seek out bars, restaurants and hotels that are the same temperature as Canadian winter?), and black-out blinds that even knocked out my wide-eyed insomniac (though the tiny red light on the air conditioning system did keep her awake until I found a mango fruit sticker to blot it out).

Aruba shares our same time zone, electrical voltage (no accidental camera battery frying necessary!), love of karaoke (not us), and sex shops.

The kicker was the Canadian dollar sitting at a pukey 70 cents American. However…


What surprised us most was that there were no beach vendors or touts. No one was egging us on to get our hair braided or to buy shells glued together to look like turtles. “Pretty lady, how ‘bout a massage?” Nothing. No eye-bugging harassment to hop on a sunset catamaran cruise, to rent a jetski or dodgy coconut cookies for sale.

When a string of colourful, makeshift structures on wheels rolled in to the empty stretch between Eagle and Palm Beach, I thought that maybe we’d happened upon a food truck festival of sorts. Dead curious, I finally approached one of the tiny hut owners. About 25 homemade trailers had gathered in the parking lot near the beach, taking up prime waterfront space. There were toilets on wheels even—it was like an instant presto campground for over 75 Arubans and counting.

I was told that it was part of the Holy Week celebration. For two weeks, Arubans congregate on the beach to celebrate. Imagine how quickly that would last in Canada! As if you and 50 of your friends could park your tiny house nation on any ol’ beach. Cool for the Arubans though—but I was disappointed that they didn’t have any greasy empanadas or heavy bricks of rum cake for sale.

Oddly, there was no begging either. No one begging for baksheesh or shillings or, Aruban Florins. Gratuities were automatically added to bills. I read that the unemployment rate is 1%, so, maybe this is what such a state looks like. The dogs don’t even beg.

The bus system is so simple. The lines run north or south—1A or 1B. For $2.30US, you can do a cheater northern tour of the island like Kim and I did, surveying Arashi, Malmok beach and Boca Catalina before committing. But, be forewarned about the buses—in the words of a Lonely Planet writer (Colombia guide), “the air con is at a level to stun an elephant.” When we first asked a local about the bus system Kathleen Johnson (oddly the name of my great aunt) repeated my question with a frown. “How often does the bus run?” “When you are on it, it is running.”


The islanders are point-blank, no guff responders. If you want a serious dose of history, oil refinery politics and an ear-to-the-ground opinion of the red light district in San Nicolaas, drop into Charlie’s for a Balashi and a pound of shrimp. Charlie the Third will serve you the most succulent pile of three minute boiled prawns and atomic “honeymoon sauce” and fill you in on it all (two slim beers and two pounds of prawns–$46 US). While taking long drags on his ever-present cigarette. (And don’t be worried about rolling your eyes—you have to just to take in all that is hanging from the ceiling and plastered on the walls at Charlie’s. It’s a global museum of licence plates, Auschwitz photos, totem poles, aerial maps, trophies, lanterns and kitsch nearly 75 years in the making.


It’s an intelligent island. Elementary school lessons are in Dutch. Kids grow up speaking the native tongue, Papiamento. In grade four they learn English—grade five is an intro to German. Talk about being ready for the world. And, the world is coming to Aruba, it’s obvious. Tourism is the biggest financial injection but sales staff show zero interest in actually making a sale. Whether you walk into Cartier or Ralph Lauren or any of the dozen diamond joints, you probably won’t be acknowledged. Even the smaller vendors in Orangestaad don’t bother to look up from their conversations over Red Bull to convince you of the merits of buying garage-sale-destined grains of sand in a bottle or maracas or carved machetes and parrots. They really couldn’t care. Obviously they’re not making commission or, they’re reserving their energies for the crush of cruisers on day pass and souvenir money to blow.

It was our first travel destination void of diarrhea (*editor’s note: please see shit-pants-in Egypt, Belize, Colombia, ________, etc. blog posts). To live in Aruba, I’d have to shave my head though—those tradewinds just wreak havoc with your hair which may explain the number of beauty salons per capita. If you are into kiteboarding or windsurfing, this is your piece of terra firma. If you have a toupee or like to eat potato chips outdoors—it’s too dangerous.


If you rent a Polaris Razor as we did to rip around the island, you can achieve “skydiver face”—you’ve seen grainy, wobbly footage of divers when their faces go all wonky on the plummet, right? The winds off the east coast replicate this if you are in an open-air UTV at 40mph.

The highlights?

Yeah, the Razor was cool. It was a steep $200 US per day (or, in Canadian pesos, $260, ouch. $1,500 deposit). You can easily circumnavigate the island if you don’t doddle over wooden maracas and Hooters servers. After an hour we were near-deaf and vibrating from the engine roar. Gasoline hung on our skin like teenage boys doused in first date Drakkar cologne. The coast was wild, raw and rough—a sharp contrast to the placid western waters.


The Arikok National Park ($11 US, UTV’s permitted) was a drive-thru safari of winding, windy paved trails (no burrowing owl or rattlesnake sightings). We pulled over for a few spelunks in the Fontein and Quadirikiri Caves. There are no guides, so, you can explore as far as your nerves take you.


We didn’t spot wild donkeys until we were outside the park and their “wildness” is now questionable. We watched as two vehicles were surrounded by the “wilds” seeking snacks. The donkeys are on to the tourist game.


My favourite spot was the Aruba Donkey Sanctuary where nearly 150 donkeys have been rescued from abuse or injured by vehicles. A volunteer proudly told us “we are saving the wild donkeys from being demolished.” We grabbed $1 pellet feed bags but were told to stay on the balcony to feed the donkeys as they are known to create a quick mosh pit.


Cruising through San Nicolaas back to Santa Cruz and Paradera I was happy to see that most dogs were collared. A friend had contacted me just prior to us leaving asking if we were flying direct. The Aruba Rescue Foundation (cutely acronymed “ARF”) is always looking for volunteers to fly back to Toronto with dogs. Fosters will meet you at the airport and the process is seamless for volunteers. I would have brought back 50 but we had a stopover in Newark. (*If you know of anyone going, please reach out here and I’ll put you in contact with the Aruban dog do-gooders!)


If you are looking for a safe, sanitized, super Anglo hot spot with all the Americana pleasures at the ready, Aruba is it. If you’re looking for cheap beach hut rentals, cheap happy hour mojitos, golden Johnnycakes for a buck or, cheap anything—Aruba has a big VISA tag attached to it. Yes, you can get a flight for a steal ($420) but this is not an island where you can live like royalty for $20 a day. We couldn’t even begin to compare our time or expenses in Taganga, Colombia ($32 US for a cabana, 75 cents a beer, $1.25 for an avocado-stuffed arepa). We travelled around Egypt for three weeks for the same price tag!

Did we have fun? Of course. Kim and I can sniff that out anywhere. Aruba is finally a destination that a big percentage of our friends and family would actually enjoy. And that’s good too—we are all different in what we want and demand of our destinations. We just want to call dibs on all the uninhabited islands now. Forget the Cinnabons but, okay, we’ll take some gouda.

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Categories: Passport Please | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Turning 40 and 40 Things To Do

Langdon Hall Country Hotel and Spa is a magnet for guests celebrating milestone events. Often they are honeymoons or anniversaries, but I’ve been part of many 40th, 50th and upward birthday itineraries. My Barbara Walters question is immediate: “Any revelations, destinations or to-do’s for the year?” (*I am a big loather of the “Bucket List” term—and don’t even get me started on “staycations.”)


I turned forty in September without hoopla, tacky t-shirt, tiara or hangover. It was a civilized and romantic night, soaking in a claw foot tub at the Naramata Heritage Inn in British Columbia. Kim and I shared a bottle of “Therapy” (yes, that’s the name of the nearby vineyard) and she gave me a card with an open-ended plane ticket to anywhere in the world. That’s how life is with her—one giant meringue-cloud dream without restriction or hesitation.

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I have plenty of hair-brained ideas (almost daily) about life as a cheesemonger, chocolate maker, cake decorator, donkey groomer and the like. Kim supports all of this, genuinely. I frequently have us flying off to places like Robinson Crusoe island (yes, it’s an actual place) or the jungles of Papua New Guinea. As rational as Kim is, nothing seems far-fetched to her.

Turning 40 was seamless, just a continuance of this life by design. But sometimes, turning a different number triggers a need to focus attention on ideas simmering on backburners (or, taken off the stove completely). Much like New Year’s resolutions, monumental birthdays are another attempt at those champagne-fogged lists of refinement.

This list certainly won’t be a chore—why would I choose to do anything that wasn’t inspiring, feasible or purely indulgent? And, as any self-helpy book would dictate, when you ‘go public’ with ideas and goals, you’re more accountable because you’ve said it ‘out loud.’

So, here’s my Out Loud List. Some of the items have been cultivated for years. Some are ambitious, complicated, others effortless. A few are brand new developments that surprised even me—and that’s the beauty of lists, you can keep refining them until they make sense. I’ve already attempted knocking a few off, but, there have been mini obstacles for some. I’m not deterred!

  1. Enrol in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Bird Biology course. (*Note: I’ve already attempted this. The textbook required for this course is out of print and is $680US to purchase on Amazon. I love birds dearly, and want to take this course—but, in lieu, will use that $680 to travel somewhere like St. Pierre and Miquelon to see the birds in person.
  2. Sign up for the Labour Day Novel Writing Contest. This is a no-brainer, but, despite being out of school for decades, the last official weekend of summer makes me so nostalgic that I can’t imagine being cooped up inside, hammering out a book in three days. I know I could do it, but, November might be more inspiring. If the September Labour Day weekend forecast is single digits and full of rain clouds, potential is high that I’ll finally scratch this one off the list
  3. Run For the Toad. This is a neat race at Pinehurst Conservation Area in Paris (Ontario) held every October. It’s responsible running for a sensible cause that doesn’t receive a lot of fanfare (toads). It’s been on my list for too many years. It’s just a measly 25 or 50km run.
  4. Watch The African Queen (*roadblock—our local library doesn’t carry this title. I need to visit my cinephile wonderland Queen Video in Toronto). This movie is obviously a cinema staple and, Africa-centric.
  5. Read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. My grade nine English teacher recently mentioned this as such an essential read, but I keep getting distracted by other titles.
  6. Read The Snow Leopard. (*roadblock—not available at the library and my sister ‘borrowed’ –which translates into ‘KEPT’ my mom’s copy. Kiley lives in Banff. I will blame her for #6 being temporarily unachievable.
  7. Go to Saugatuck, Michigan. When we were miniature, our aunt Buffer (long story) had a game similar to Monopoly called “Saugatuck.” We played it endlessly, cross-legged, sucking back cans of Coke with ketchup chip-stained fingers, awaiting our next move. It was only a few years ago that I learned that Saugatuck was an actual place. It’s lakeside and chock-a-block with art studios, quirky cafes and cutesy B&B’s.
  8. Make a gingerbread house. At Christmas of course, not now. This was always a tradition, but somehow I fell off the gingerbread house wagon.
  9. Carve a pumpkin! Also, to be done during the appropriate season. I’ve slacked on carving since moving from Toronto—and in the city I paid big bucks for an urban pumpkin ($20). We live close to so many patches now, there’s no excuse. Plus, it’s been a while since I scorched a nice batch of salty pumpkin seeds. (Does anyone bake those without burning the life out of them?
  10. Sleep in a treehouse. For my sister’s wedding gift, the Torti fam pulled financial forces together to get Kiley and Mark two nights in the “Melody” orb at Free Spirit Spheres, near Qualicum Beach, BC. We always give the gifts we want to receive, right? (Hint).
  11. Re-create mom’s shortbread. I’ve never attempted my mom’s recipe, but, her shortbread is meant to be eaten on a treadmill or elliptical.
  12. Make a batch of egg nog. I haven’t done this since I was in Africa, of all places. Even stranger, Jann Arden gave me the recipe. I paid premium for the only dusty bottle of Captain Morgan’s dark rum in Entebbe and used unrefrigerated eggs bought at a roadside stand. I thought for sure I might kill off the entire staff at the Jane Goodall Institute, but, whew, didn’t. It’s time to make a Canadian-grade batch again. Also seasonal.
  13. Pick strawberries and make jam. When I lived in the beating heart of Toronto, I had such farm and foraging fantasies. We always seem to miss the strawberry season as June is when we travel east to Prince Edward Island (and we miss their season too, which is later). Last year Kim and I actually made mustard pickles (though we didn’t pick the cukes). We’re channeling our pioneer ways, slowly.
  14. Go to a roller derby match. I’ve been meaning to do this since that movie with Drew Barrymore—Whipit? Let it be clear that I have zero interest in participating—it’s completely barbaric and I still have a bump on my lower jawbone from when a Hostess Munchie chip mascot flattened me from behind on the roller rink. It was Jeff Kellam’s 8th birthday party and I thought my jaw was broken. But, I managed to stifle my tears and take advantage of the free birthday hot dogs.
  15. Go to the Organic Farmer’s Daughter. In nearby Baden, an actual farmer’s daughter serves up organic fare and it’s as close to farm to fork as you can get. You can visit the farm before dinner and see where everything is sourced from.
  16. Do one of those Farm-to-Fork events. The price tags are usually steep ($175+), but, you get to walk around some fairy tale farmer’s field in the autumn, or traipse through the woods with craft beer or guzzle wine and make pit stops at gourmand food stations and chat with chefs along the way.
  17. Sleep in a Lighthouse. Better yet, Kim and I both have fantasies of living in one. Preferably at a southern latitude, not the wave-battered, teeth-chattery east coast of Canada.
  18. Drink pink grapefruit margaritas at The Diplomat Hotel, Merida, Mexico. My ex-boss decided to ditch Canadian winters forever and the slog of working for other people. Sara and her husband Neil, opened their fancy-pants boutique hotel last year. It’s stunning and a true showcase of their design maven ways.
  19. Go to a lacrosse game. I haven’t been in over 15 years. I love the aggression in lacrosse. Last time I went was on the Six Nations Reserve with my dad. I sat in a seat that had a giant wad of purple Hubba Bubba stuck to it, and then, consequently me. Those jeans were toast after that game. I almost had to bring the seat home with me.
  20. Go to a women’s boxing match. Who doesn’t get all charged up watching Rocky movies? Adriannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnne! Sometimes when I run in the winter in the blinding snow, huffing the wind chill, I pretend I am Sly Stallone in Russia, training for the big ring with Dolph.
  21. Make spaghetti squash. Simple, right? If I can’t do #21 then I should just quit this list now.
  22. Go ice fishing. (Typed with trepidation. Just like our stay at the Ice Hotel. And, I don’t even non-ice fish, so, maybe this isn’t practical?)
  23. Try buttertea. There was only one place in Toronto that served this Nepalese-style of tea and it was always closed. The tea is hot, oily, made with gobs of butter and salt. I know, it sounds terrible, but I read a book called Buttertea at Sunrise and it’s been on my mind ever since.
  24. Increase gin knowledge. And this isn’t some lazy half-arsed excuse to just drink more gin. It’s historic and intriguing.
  25. Learn more about beekeeping. Bees are so trendy right now. I always loved that the Fairmont Royal York Hotel (where I worked eons ago) had beehives on their rooftop. After reading Michelle Catherine Nelson’s Urban Homesteading Cookbook, I’m two steps (swats?) away from getting a ‘hive nuc’ (nucleus with Queen and drones).
  26. Make Italian Wedding Soup. It’s a rare thing to find on menus. I haven’t had it since I skipped out of some massage class back in 1997 and a classmate with a car drove us to a little tea house in Dundas that served it.
  27. Go to a Red Bull Crashed Ice event. Have you seen this madness on TV? The competitors are kamikaze—flying down an ice track on skates to the finish line. We narrowly missed seeing an event in Quebec City and instead watched the track being constructed. Competing in Crashed Ice is something you would do at age 7, when you don’t think about the consequences of not having front teeth anymore.
  28. Have an official high tea at Langdon Hall or the Empress Hotel in Victoria, somewhere authentic. I went to the Empress, but opted for a beer instead as I had discovered lamb burgers at the Pink Bicycle just an hour before. I’ve seen Langdon Hall’s tea service behind the scenes, but, it’s good to be on both sides, right?
  29. “Choose a direction to set sail instead of catching every which wind.”
  30. Go to a drive-in movie. Just for nostalgic sake. We grew up three cornfields behind one. There’s even a drive-in theatre in Aruba.
  31. Attend a life drawing class. Not as the subject.
  32. Take my Katniss double (Kim) to an archery class at Casa Loma. I’ve ‘arched’ before, but not since high school phys-ed class. And, summer camp, when half the idiot boy campers would aim at the nearby cows instead.
  33. Write my African memoirs. “I once had a farm in Africa…” Yes, they’re written, but, all over the years and in various forms—journals, blogs, postcards, beer coasters, porcupine quills, etc.
  34. Find out how I can be a James Ready Beer Cap Writer. The writing team under these bottle caps is brilliant! It’s Kim’s brand and I love popping the top to see what wit lies beneath. I really want to be a beer bottle cap writer. What a handle.
  35. Try a cake decorating course. I don’t even like cake that much (except the pear-ginger-molasses one my mom just made, wow! It was like a gingerbread man French-kissed a Bosc pear!). However, I love the cool direction that cakes are going with fondant.
  36. Check out the Arkansas Elephant Experience Weekend. I’ve already enquired about this course—it’s sold out annually, for good reason. Who doesn’t want to learn all about elephants, suds them up and scrub them down and hand-feed them? In fact, if there’s any sort of ‘experience weekend’ involving an animal of any sort, I’m in. Which reminds me–there’s a sloth sanctuary in Costa Rica that’s always eager for husbandry volunteers.
  37. Investigate what it takes to be a Cicerone-in-Training. I didn’t even know there was a name for beer experts, but, this is the hoppy cousin to a sommelier. It’s the true bar exam.
  38. Get acupunctured. I’ve subjected myself to sand saunas, volcanic mud baths, Tuina, Chinese cupping, Anma-do…but never acupuncture.
  39. Go for a beer bath. The Grand Wellness Centre in Brantford has expanded its services to a more beer-centric spa menu. Clients can soak in a beer bath topped up with three pints of Ramblin’ Road Brewing beer and extra hops. And, you get to slug back a pint while you soak.
  40. Start list (ie. Maybe just delete a few of these wacky notions. Like, am I really going to start cake baking? I made a sorry batch of pumpkin cookies near Halloween that were so dense and wet that even the squirrels rejected them and ate an old foil ball and empty peanut shells instead.

It’s easy to come up with 40 ways to engage and live out loud. Just build stuff, paint things, make things, eat superb things–learn widely, read deeply…I’m still percolating with thoughts—like, must read Farley Mowat’s A Whale for the Killing. Sleep in a yurt. Road trip to Amherst Island to investigate if it’s somewhere we could actually live merrily. We haven’t been to the farmers’ market at Evergreen Brick Works yet or that lavender farm on the way to Paris. Do I need a literary agent? Should I learn more about orangutans? Should we build a bat house?

Of course this list isn’t comprehensive—it doesn’t even touch on my/our travel ideas because that’s a different list altogether and it’s double this one.

What’s on your list? Maybe it’s time you made one!

Last minute addition. #41. Go to Aruba Monday. Check!

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Categories: Polyblogs in a Jar | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

A Lament for Innocence: Growing up in the 70s

Last week I had an eyebrow archer-type conversation with a massage client. We were chatting about the impending March Break and she expressed disappointment in the change in kids over the span of her teaching career. “The children are just so anxious now. They don’t know how to play anymore.”

Today, I was combing through press trip opportunities on a site called Media Kitty. At Clayoquot Wilderness Resort, guests are invited to get “their wildhood back.” Reconnect with time spent in nature and the wilderness!

The resort is cashing in on our detached population and the sage ways of our terra firma-tuned in grandparents. They are the Last of the Mohicans, the ones who remember a life spent deeper in nature, void of technology. In June and September, Clayoquot Wilderness Resort’s Elder’s Package covers the cost of “the stay for up to two grandparents (when travelling with six or more adults), excluding the cost of the floatplane trip from Vancouver to the resort. Rates for other family members start at $4,750 CDN for a three night all-inclusive package, with children under 12 staying for $2,375 CDN when sharing a tent with an adult. Rates for four and seven night stays are also available.”

In a stream of synchronicity, my friend Denise sent a link to a book she’d just read about “Nature Deficiency Disorder”—Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv.

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Nature Deficiency Disorder? Wildhood? Anxious kindergarten kids? The only time I was anxious in kindergarten was when we lined up alphabetically to use the washrooms and I pissed my pants (well, skirt actually. I’m a “T”—and the rest of the alphabet was dilly-dallying).

The teacher I spoke with enlightened me further. Apparently her school is ramping up their emotional awareness curricula with “mindfulness sessions.” Each morning, via the PA system, students (and teachers) are led through a mindfulness exercise, encouraging them to focus on their intention, their breathing and how to be present.

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Holy Eckhart Tolle! I recall doing mindfulness sessions in grade 10 drama class with a spunky teacher ahead of her time. I thought for sure I was ready for the hippie commune after that exercise. It was truly “out there” and something I imagined occurring in the intense heat of a sweat lodge or on a solo journey to Kilimanjaro. In kindergarten we were innocently sucking back juice boxes, handfuls of Oreos and taste-testing the Elmer’s glue and poster paint. We were IN the moment, by default. I didn’t even know the term “mindfulness” until the day I laid on the floor of the drama classroom, a bit too icked out by the carpet to be totally centered and mindful.

Do kids need mindfulness session? Shouldn’t they just be pushed outside and away from their tablets and iPhones? I know there’s probably an app for tree-climbing and grass stains, but c’mon. We need to be told to rediscover our “wildhood” and introduce kids to earth basics like dirt, worms and trees? Wow.

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I was born in 1974. We lived in childhood postcard. I had to sit down almost daily to have sticky sap cut out of my hair from perching in the pines behind our house making crappily constructed tree houses (or, dodgy ladders to wobbly platforms at least). We had chronic gouges and scrapes from endless hide n’ go seek sessions at my cousin’s farm and hiding in the belly of the combines, under greasy farm trucks in the barns. At day’s end we were ripe with pig manure, swamp mud, full of burrs and scratched all to hell from racing through the corn field rows. Our faces would be stained with orange or purple Kool-aid. Nobody was allergic to peanuts. We survived on peanut butter alone.

We were immunized because we were supposed to be. We were subjected to nit checks by some public health nurse every so often. Once a month the “Swish Lady” would appear at school and we’d gargle fluoride and chew on tiny red tablets that would reveal our tartar. At age 10, that same nurse would return and have all the girls bend over to check for scoliosis.

Nobody had ADD. If anything, you were genuinely bored and twitchy from math or history class. More often, you were a dreamer—and excited about the prospect of getting back outside to the places where all the neat things were. Where you could catch pollywogs in makeshift nets. Dig for arrowheads in the tilled fields. Make loon calls with cupped hands and blades of grass held just-so.

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Nobody was overweight—and in the 70s, whole wheat bread hadn’t even been invented. We ate our share of pre-packaged sugary things, so that can’t be to blame. We LOVED neon Kraft Dinner and Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes (to which we would add even more sugar). The 70s and 80s were all about white bread, Swiss Rolls, fish sticks, Fruit Roll-ups, Pop Tarts, Jell-o everything, Freezies and iceberg lettuce. We survived.

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Our parents were responsible. They made sure we could print, read and say thank you before we started kindergarten. They made sure we were curious, interested and interesting. My dad ensured that we could swim, ride bikes, swing a bat and do a snow plow stop when we played hockey. They weren’t Dragon helicopter parents force-feeding us piano lessons, karate, dance, etc., etc. Despite my dad’s affection and accolades for baseball and hockey—we all chose soccer. We chose. My mom would be the first to recommend quitting if we weren’t enjoying something anymore. I still think quitting is great. It means you can start something better.

“Only boring people get bored” My mother tattooed that into our young minds.

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Fun was a trip to the library to get as many books as we could carry. I tore through choose-your-own-adventure novels at night (yes, under the covers, with a flashlight), inspired to choose-my-own-adventures the next day. We went to Port Dover for hot dogs, went skating at Lion’s Park, fished the Grand, stayed up past our bedtime to look for Haley’s Comet and built birdhouses at the local nature centre. Our Christmas and birthday gifts were things like telescopes, bird guides, blank journals, microscopes. Dax was always experimenting with how to make dill pickles glow in the dark. We’d grow sea salt crystals, build terrariums and attempt getting avocado pits to sprout.

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Sure, we watched TV, but only at night and barely on Saturday mornings (my brother, sister and I all chose sleep over cartoons). When my mom did a revamp of the living room and moved the console TV downstairs, we lost even more interest. However, back then, didn’t we all watch the exact same shows? Were there only six to choose from? Facts of Life, The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Growing Pains, Silver Spoons?

We had one rotary dial phone that was more of a nuisance than necessity. However, my pre-teen sister was quite obsessed with it and, after clogging the home phone line in excess, she was forced into purchasing her own phone line if she wanted to gab that much. But still, she was talking, not texting. She’s still a talker and not a texter. And, I’m still without a cell phone.

When Nintendo and Super Mario Brothers was all the rage, my brother sunk money he had earned from selling produce from his garden into a play station. Wisely, he charged my sister and I to play— 25 cents a game. My coveted item was a cassette player—so I could record the spring peepers in the pond. My version of a tablet was an Etch-a-Sketch. Did we feel hard done by? Out of the loop? Hardly. We had it all. We had a Rubik’s Cube, a dog, a cat, a pond and Hostess Ketchup chips for Friday night.

Back then, we EARNED our pleasures. And they were pleasures, not demands. Kiley worked the graveyard shift at Tim Horton’s to have that fancy phone line. We picked gravel out of the grass (from the snowplows) and pinecones from the forest floor (to avoid shin shrapnel from the lawnmower). We Turtle Waxed the car and scrubbed the white walls of my dad’s Cutlass Supreme with a toothbrush for maybe $5.

We weren’t anxious. Pizza night was a treat, not routine. Going to McDonald’s was a big deal. I had three pairs of rugger pants and a pair of Kangaroo shoes. I alternated my Dallas Cowboys sweatshirt and cowboy fringe shirt. We were want for nothing—we weren’t obsessed with name brands. Everyone wore Kangaroo shoes then.

Life was innocent and simple. Lawn darts and charcoal barbecues started with lighter fluid. We didn’t sanitize our hands. Xanadu, our dog, washed our faces.

We were mindful, without even knowing it. And perhaps that’s the best way to be.

classic 4

Categories: Polyblogs in a Jar | Tags: , , , , , , | 5 Comments

(Not) Sleeping Around Coastal Colombia

When you sleep around Colombia, here are three guarantees:

  1. You won’t sleep
  2. There will be no hot showers (or, lukewarm for that matter…but, you might be able to bird watch from the convenience of your shower)
  3. Sometimes you’ll have to request a toilet seat

Poor Kim. Even with ear plugs and enough rum to kill an elephant,  the crashing waves of the Caribbean were just too crashy. The coconuts also crashed during the night and even the tiny little lizards peeped and barked from the palm frond roofs above our heads. And of course we had a few requisite heat-seeking missile mosquitos trapped inside our mosquito net, and an off kilter rooster (from Australia?) who cockadoodled at 3am onward. There were howler monkeys, street dog choirs, horny neighbours having (apparently) amazing sex in the outdoor shower adjacent to our room, salsa lovers with music CRANKED at dawn, Fred Flintstone snorers, farters and trickling toilets. Kim didn’t sleep for 21 days.

But, sleep aside (I’m in charge of sleeping for two), here’s where we crashed around Colombia.

Zaguan Boutique Hotel, Cartagena

$129.35 CDN, 2 nights incl. breakfast


We weren’t supposed to sleep here. Despite having made a reservation with, our ‘original’ hotel, Casa del Mango, had no room for us. Via Google translate, the receptionist awaiting our arrival typed in “Hello nice lady of the night, we have no room but will send you somewhere else.” GREAT. Our introduction to Spanish charades began that night as we guessed that our cab fare would be covered by the first hotel and we would be shuttled off somewhere else. She showed us some convincing pictures of Zaguan, and we hopped in another cab and headed back directly to where we had just come from, via the airport.

In the historic centre of Cartagena, this hotel was actually closer to where we wanted to be. In minutes we were atop the walled city, walking the fort (which we soon learned was where everyone under the age of 30 came to make out on the cannons).

The room itself was contemporary and had a King bed. After we unpacked most everything on to the single bed in the room, the receptionist knocked on our door. She needed the single bed for another room. A mild annoyance, less so than the waterproof child who continued to cannonball and splash about the courtyard pool until almost 11pm. Oh, and supervising dad? He had a nice marching band mix pumping out of his cell phone—placed on our bedroom window sill. Around 2am, a group of three (probably the ones who needed the single bed) clomped in and shared their life stories above us until dawn.


We made our way to the courtyard, bleary-eyed, for our first day (but not last day) of crappy, muddy coffee, white bread, eggs and papaya.

Highlight: our shower curtain rod was an old mop handle and we had some type of insect with a 12 hour lifespan in the bathroom. Each morning, 150 dead miniature flies would be left tits up all over the sink, soap and floor.

Dumaga Hostal, Taganga

$67 CDN, 2 nights, no breakfast (but free coffee and convo with Anna!)


For $33 bucks a night, I loved this place. Owned by a recently retired Colombian American Airlines flight attendant, Anna, it was authentic, rustic and Tiny House Nation-cool. It even had a flat screen TV! However, Taganga, a formerly sleepy fishing village, is also home of the “crazy breeze.” This breeze is like a gale-force wind that whips towards the ocean, and I thought for sure our tiny cabana was going to blow right off its tiny stilts into the sea. Our bed shook, the whole structure leaned with the wind and creaked and threatened until sunrise. Oh, and then the rooster started in. This set the Rooster Richter Scale at an all-time high. It was like waking up in the middle of Old Macdonald’s Farm.

Anna compensated though with her tall tales, hatred for the neighbour’s rooster and plied us with better coffee. She helped us arrange our hell ride (see previous blog) to Playa Blanca with her rooster-owning neighbour and found us a private cab to Minca for a steal. She was the only English-speaking person we had found in Colombia in four days.

Dumaga is .8km to the beach and not entirely flip flop friendly. Kim banned me from flip-flopping down due to the terrain and my tendency to skid out or lose a flop. It’s rocky and more of a trail than a proper road. Even the taxi refused to climb the hill to drop us directly at Dumaga. At night it’s a steep crawl and one that is only done confidently with the aid of several happy hour drinks to dull rational senses.

Highlight: Sundowners at the beach. This actually ended up being our only sunset in Colombia and it was fun to park ourselves on the seawall and watch all the activity. Fisherman carrying Chihuahua-sized lobsters for sale, kids hoofing soccer balls and an odd and surprising collection of homemade circus acts. As Kim said, “It’s the place where everyone who didn’t make the Barnum & Bailey’s cut come to live.” We ate very cheaply here (and without diarrhea), sampling deep-fried arepas stuffed with guacamole and cheese for 75 cents. Beer was the same price. We also discovered what we dubbed “Colombian poutine”—the heap consisted of Crisco-saturated fries, three hunks of sausage, shredded lettuce and carrot in a mayo dressing with tomato and salty cheese. Mojitos made it taste better. I’m not sure if I would rave about it as much midday, not under the influence.

El Dorado Bird Reservo,

$230 CDN including a paltry dinner and breakfast (and 136 hummingbirds)

PLUS: $82 hell ride on the back of motorbike, to and fro from the reserve


Well, we ruined ourselves by staying here. See previous blog for the full account of hell ride #2 to access the bird reserve on motorbikes. But, wow. Soundtrack? Wattled guans and holy cacophony of green parrots! Hummingbirds, fifty at a time, circled the feeders. This place just oozed birds. At 1,700m, we were truly sleeping in the clouds. Standing on the balcony of our room, clouds would swallow the canopy below and soon envelop us, then part again.


At night, Cartagena and Bocagrande appeared like a distant Lite Brite set. The stars were bigger and brighter than those of the city far below. We were above the coffee plantations even! It was like waking up in a treehouse with toucans. Kim and I both sounded like hyped-up versions of David Attenborough, spotting birds at all angles and thumbing through the Encyclopedia-sized Colombian bird book on hand to identify the orange-eared tanager, tawny headed swallow and yellow-legged thrush.


At dinner (no other options in this remote reserve!), we chatted with the other guests. Two Americans, four Canadians and a Brit. The Canadians were also herpetologists—they couldn’t eat dinner fast enough. “When the birds end, the herps begin!” They even travelled with snake hooks! They were like sugar-high kids, finding ghost frogs and anoles that made their voices even higher than before. In two weeks they had seen 267 species. The Americans bragged about how many endemic species they had seen before breakfast–18. Kim and I privately rolled our eyes and opted out of the conversation to check out the superb collection of neon lime and orange moths and katydids that had gathered on the window of the treehouse where dinner was served.

Dinner was a pure flop—but, not why we came. I’m not even sure what it was. Tuna pie with a cold pile of mashed potatoes? It was all very beige and something a grade 7 home-ec class would prepare.

Highlight: Take the trail to El Mirador for a stunner of a view. You won’t cross paths with anyone else on the trail. And, fill up your coffee cup with hot cocoa in the morning ( a nice departure from the coffee slurry) and take a perch below the treehouse to watch all the birds that come to the “take-out” window. Those lovely moths from the night before make for a quick breakfast!

Tayrona Tented Lodge, Costeno Beach

$310.00 CDN for three nights, all-inclusive (no booze)


After walking 30 minutes through an old banana plantation, we weren’t entirely sure if we had turned the right way. Yes, we were parallel to the beach but we saw no signage for the tented lodge. The sun was like molten lava and our packs like Sumo wrestlers on our back.

We found a surf camp first and the cool dudes had never heard of the Tented Lodge. Even though it was DIRECTLY beside them, just 75 meters away. Alas, we were happy to drop our bags and find that we had booked three nights on a perfectly isolated beach. The surfers couldn’t be heard or seen unless they took to the water—but, most of them were surfing the internet or hanging out high in their hammocks. We had the beach to ourselves.

The Lodge consists of three self-contained cabanas and, again, due to the remoteness, an all-inclusive package is necessary. We ate like kings—spaghetti Bolognese, coconut rice and tilapia, chicken in coconut sauce with plantain fritters. Each meal we were presented with a new mystery juice (enhanced by our in-room vodka)–strawberry, guava and tamarind.

It was so peaceful here and our morning ritual was lazy outside of my 5k run to the end of the road. Kim would follow behind, with binoculars and camera, chasing pileated woodpeckers and parakeets around.

The beach was littered only with coconuts—obviously we were well off any boat or steamer pathway.

On our first night, the owner welcomed us with a complimentary bottle of champagne (which we think was possibly perfume blended with gasoline). He had built a Burning Man-esque effigy on the beach and invited us to join him on the beach that night. There was a cooler of beer and marshmallows even! The fire was over five feet and with endless driftwood and coconut husks, we fell into a lovely trance for hours.

Tayrona proved to be one of our faves with its isolation. We both plowed through our books, nursing drinks on our balcony, walking for hours on the beach like it was our new-found occupation.

La Sirena Eco-Hotel, Palomino

$645 CDN, 7 nights seaside casita, incl. AMAZING breakfast and one cute cat


The seaside casita we booked at La Sirena was a Pinterest page, for sure. Located right on the beach, it oozed serenity. We had an open-sky shower! We chatted with one of the massage therapists on-site and learned she was from Nelson, BC. She said she was looking for another “Nelson” somewhere warmer, and this was it. She had found it. Having been in Nelson in the fall, Kim and I agreed. It was zen, granola, yoga-centric and had groovy on the GPS.


Marta, the Colombian owner, charmed us with her genesis story. She had bought the property years ago, when her children were young. She was living in Toronto then, and, after purchasing the land, couldn’t afford to fly back to see or enjoy it for years. Her patience is evident in her plan and what she has created. The bungalows, casitas and permaculture gardens embrace and enhance the land instead of stealing the show. It’s eco-conscious all around with herbal mosquito repellants and honey for sale. The menu is a showcase of the garden (the ginger pumpkin coconut soup is the grand prize winner) and the local bakery. Unlike the rest of our travels through Colombia, when we groaned at the thought of having to eat again, La Sirena was a pure treat with the likes of dense fruit-studded French toast, lentil burgers with red cabbage slaw and plantain chips and hefty black bean burritos.


We enjoyed “bat o’clock” (at 5:55pm the bats begin to flit about and circle the palms) with bottles of red and watched the pink sky settle into night.

Though we were nearly vegan converts by day 7, we didn’t yoga—not even once. Though, we watched a lot of classes while drinking beer!

Highlight: One adorable cat named Emma who will gladly help you out with your French Toast and an endless beach that you can walk to Venezuela on. And, you can pay for your stay via paypal.

Palomino Breeze, Palomino

$35.77 CDN including breakfast and five snoring farters

We had lofty plans to go to the desert region via 4×4 but axed the idea when full logistics and cost were considered. We still had nearly a week to plot out after La Sirena, so we decided to cut costs and have a cheap sleep just a 15 minute walk from the beach at Palomino Breeze.

We had passed by the hotel every day on our way to ‘town’ on our grocery run. It was well-manicured with a pool and gorgeous golden retriever. We couldn’t believe the price either. Oddly, no one was staying there it seemed. That is, until we booked a night. Directly above our private room was a dorm with six bunk beds. All night long a group of Colombian students jumped in and out of bed, sent text messages and hosed themselves with citronella. They chatted, farted and carried on, oblivious. The couple beside us did the same—the walls were maxi-pad thin and we could hear everyone from all angles. The toilet trickled until Kim shut the water valve off. The pillows were made up of lumpy bits of leftover Q-tip cotton. The bed was like sleeping on a panty liner with springs. The hotel owner watched TV in the open-air commons room until 11pm at a blaring level. Even though the extensive document we signed said the commons room would close at 9pm, there would be no loud noise after this time—and absolutely no psychotropic drugs. We needed some serious psychotropic drugs!!

We tried to calm ourselves by turning the experience into Camino training. Walking the Camino de Santiago’s greatest challenge for Kim and I will be the other people—not the 600km walk. Sharing a hostel with no walls? Ugh. This was close. The walls here didn’t go to the ceiling and shit was falling from the ceiling as the frat party upstairs bounced around.

Not worth the savings or a picture.

Posada Jasayma, Tayrona National Park

$153 CDN for two nights, including 4 breakfasts, 4 dinners (incl. $15 deduction for bitching

about the noise levels from the neighbours listening to accordion music at 6am)

$38 CDN (park admission for two)


I missed the disclaimer that this hotel had no electricity. Or, toilet seat! It was a version of a farm shed, something like the three little pigs would have built. A combo of wood scraps, brick and cement, the water in the shower and sink smelled like a swamp—but, you could birdwatch from the shower. The screened window was at the perfect height to look for titi monkeys and parakeets.

Amazingly, the bed had no mosquito net—despite being in prime yellow fever territory. I suppose the curtains on the window were the equivalent?


The worst coffee we had in Colombia was here. The chef roared in the back of a motorbike every day to prep breakfast (day 18 of eggs and white bread, hurray!) and dinners that were actually impressive given her makeshift kitchen with pots and pans nailed to a palm tree. She made a super sweet lemonade that we tempered with rum.

Despite being inside Tayrona National Park (the world’s largest coastal national park), you are still 35 minutes to the trailhead, and another 8km to Cabo San Juan.


Highlight: At night, watching the fireflies emerge with the stars. Waking up to howler monkeys! And, finding out that we could dial-a-bottle. Because the ‘hotel’ had no bar service or drinks/snacks for sale, we could request the motorbike driver to pick up beer for us, for no additional cost (leaving the park means you have to pay admission to re-enter to the tune of $18US). Also, there is a pet parakeet here that you can have up close and personal moments with.

Yuluka Eco Hotel, Tayrona

$184 for 3 nights, Mountain View Bungalow, King Bed incl. breakfast

$59.80 for 2 mojitos, 4 mango shakes, 2 beers, 2 waters, 1 spag bol, 1 chicken quesadilla, 1 salad and 1 whole snapper with coconut rice (not all in one sitting)



Visually and architecturally impressive, the bungalows at Yuluka are built in and around massive boulders. A winding stone staircase is a real heart-thumper, but the mountain views from the rooms are uninterrupted and worth the price of admission.


As lush and manicured as an Oscar night attendee, Yuluka is a traveller’s oasis with a palatial bedroom, King bed and hammocks on the balcony. The bathroom—again, open sky (check out the conch shell shower head!) with a tub that would fit twenty of our friends was a knock-out. I loved that you could just drip dry on the hot stones—like a Turkish spa.


Esther, one of the amiable kitchen staff made the best thick and foamy mango coconut milkshakes. We even convinced her to switch up the smoked salmon quesadilla (smoked salmon in Colombia??) to chicken, and, it was the best thing we ate in three weeks. Served with mango salsa and stuffed with stretchy cheese, Esther has found her calling.


After tromping around Tayrona park, we were happy to be supine poolside with the above-mentioned mango shakes. Just watch out for the dive-bombing iguanas that suddenly belly-flop off the trees. Yuluka has built a living wall by the pool—one that we want to recreate. Hiding the concrete cinder blocks, it was a real marvel.


Unfortunately, the hotel is right on the major highway through Tayrona and trucks and motorbikes like to gun it down the straightaway. It’s the only negative I have for the property and really, once we were in the groove and sucking up the last of the Colombian sun, we tuned it out.

Highlight: A few chapters in the hammock before dusk, though you will be distracted by inevitable mountain staring.

Yes, we were largely sleepless but well-satiated by the rhythms, guaranteed sun, unexpected entertainment/hell rides and fauna of Colombia. If you are a resilient traveler open to some roadblocks, bouts of diarrhea, zero soundproofing, hiking through banana plantations to solar powered hotels, long hauls on public transport and of a steel gut, Colombia will suit.

If you’re looking for good coffee, air-conditioning, sanitation, English, ice cubes, hot showers, satellite TV, reliable internet, culinary delights, a wine list and cockroach-free suites—nope. Not here. Try somewhere in North America

Next stop? Maybe Fogo Island Inn, Newfoundland, where the hotel rooms have switches to turn on white noise if the silence becomes too unbearable.

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Mucking Around Colombia: Mud Massages in Volcan de Lodo El Tutomo

When Kim and I began digging deeper into Colombia, it became obvious that tourism had yet to really percolate outside of Cartagena. Websites were thin on content and logistics. How to physically get to the dunes of La Guajira was vague and not entirely enticing. Descriptions varied, but all seemed to involve a solid two days bumping across a wind-whipped desert and sleeping in hammocks. Yeah, we don’t sleep in hammocks—even for $8 a night. I can handle a few chapters in one, but not a night’s sleep.

We opted to skip the desert, our memories of Egypt’s Siwa Oasis and the love affair we had with the White Desert can’t be matched, I know. Instead, we plotted out a route along Colombia’s coast that would be heavy on birds, a few nights in Tayrona National Park (the world’s largest coastal national park) and a volcanic mud massage at Volcan de Lodo El Tutomo in Santa Cantalina, 50km outside Cartagena.


Years ago (2008!) I had seen an episode of Word Travels on Colombia, but it wasn’t until Kim pulled up a few photos online of an ant hill volcano that the memory was triggered. I told her about travel writers and TV hosts Julia Dimon and Robin Esrock (whose Great Canadian Bucket List book launch we had attended last spring) going to that very volcano. I was certain.

The ‘attraction’ looked very homemade with a rickety staircase (that would fail any North American standards) to the crater, not so very far away at 49 feet.

Finding transit to the volcano was trying. Local buses stopped at a nearby gas station and then involved a 3km walk to the site. But you had to get to the local bus station, not so locally located on the outskirts of Cartagena. We opted to save hours and spend more by hiring a private cab who could also take us directly to the Convento de Popa, the only other site of interest to us in the city.


The convent can’t be reached by public transit either, and the walk up the zig zag road with cabs ripping up and down blind switchbacks was not advised. We understood immediately. The convent was lacking in wow factor but, the location at 150m did allow for a cool (and expensive) aerial of Cartagena and Bocagrande.


For $210,000 ($105US—total rip-off but total convenience for our party of 2) our cabbie waited for us to poke around the convent (15 minutes—not including 15 minutes drinking a beer and looking for our cabbie who probably assumed we’d be a pokey hour). There was no small talk with him due to him speaking 100% Spanish and us, 100% English. Instead he turned up his Latino rockabilly muzak and the air con to Canadian winter levels. Great.

As soon as we came to a stop (the mighty volcano in full view), fixers latched themselves to us. Two lanky Colombian boys, probably just shy of 20, introduced themselves and said they would help us. I’m not sure how or why we needed help because it was all so self-explanatory. Pay here ($10,000 for two/$5.00US), climb stairs and, get in to the mud!


What can you do for $5.00 nowadays? It was going to be a scream. Kim and I did quick changes into sports bras and underwear (I know, so classy! But I didn’t want to sacrifice my bikini) that we knew would be disposable after the mud dunk. We had read in Lonely Planet that folklore surrounding the mud volcano involved a priest who saw the fiery hole as the work of the devil. Apparently, it used to be a bubbling brew of molten lava and angry (tiny) eruptions. A few sprinkles of holy water and the priest turned the cranky volcano into mud to drown the devil. And, to provide a lark of an attraction for future tourists boasting mineral content and healing properties.

Our fixers also became our chief photographers (with the Fuji in hand, they snapped over 100 pics in less than half an hour—and even took video footage). They clung to us like mud as we climbed the ladder and queued up to enter the pit. Looking back at the Word Travels site now—I am shocked at the change. The mud bath is now about 10 feet lower than it was in the pictures on Robin and Julia’s 2008 visit. Now we had to climb a ladder down into the drowned devil pit–seven years ago it the mud was flush with the crater’s surface. Climate change?


I tell you. There’s nothing quite like sharing a mud bath with twenty of your closest non-friends with elbows and feet in your ribs and face. It was like a frosh week hot tub. But, not hot. The mud was like lukewarm pudding and so buoyant it was impossible to stand. I have no idea how deep the pit was or whether the devil’s skeleton was just a toe-tip away, but, it was like being in outerspace. Gravity bounced me to the surface with a local urging me to lie back, relax. “Put head down.” I didn’t really want to muck up my hair, but, with his hand not so gently pushing my forehead down, I had to cave. Kim entered next, as bewildered as me. “Okay, how many of our friends and family would say this would be their biggest nightmare?” All of them, except maybe my sister and our pal Michelle Bluhm who does zany things like eat walrus and polar bear and sleep in treehouses and spend years living in human-unfriendly places like Nunavut.


I thought of our friends Heidi, Kay—my mother. All of them would require sedation or millions to enter the mud volcano. Because, better yet—you get a massage too! But, it isn’t included in the admission price. No, it’s another $2.50 each for a muddy groping. The mud massagers began rubbing Kim and I up and down within a minute. They turned us like we were on a rotisserie spit and came only so close to our nether regions. I was surprised, in the dark and depth of the mud, those wandering hands could go anywhere, sight unseen.


It was brisk, weird and hilarious. Our fixers continually called to us for in-action photos from above. We were spun around a few times and well-slathered, heads half-dunked in the devil’s remains. It smelled mineral-ish, like pennies and clay. Like Plastercine actually. After maybe 20 minutes we were whistled at to get out. We were dragged to the second ladder where a mud-whiskerer whisked off the mud from our bodies as we mounted the rungs. Still slick with the healing pudding, we exited the crater and were instructed to walk down the other side of the volcano, gripping the mud-caked hand rails as we skidded down the ‘steps.’


Our fixers met us and ushered us to a lagoon 50m away. It was like the walk of shame down a road lined with makeshift restaurants selling beer, arepas, gasoline, fried fish and candy bars.


At the lagoon, Kim and I were still laughing about our five dollar experience. Little did we know what was in store next. Two women led us into deeper waters and pushed us down rather aggressively into a seated position. The murky water was up to my collarbones. The last thing I saw was Kim get doused with a bucket of water over her head. And then it was my turn. The buckets kept coming—I couldn’t breathe. I could hear Kim say, “Jesus!” And then I knew why. My bucket-dumper was tugging at my bra and trying to pull it over my head. Next she was giving me a wedgie. Her index fingers were deep in my ears and her thumbs in my eyes. Holy! Still sputtering, she threw more water over my head. We were being drowned! It was like having a fire hose at point blank! What’s that expression? Baptism by fire?

We choked and burped up lagoon water. Finally, there was a reprieve from the prodding fingers and wedgies.

Kim and I said a weak thank you to the women. We swam further into the lagoon for safety. “That was like being INSIDE a washing machine!” We still had traces of mud, surprisingly.

Exhausted from the roughhousing and attempted drowning, we found our fixers and camera. Of course, such fun would cost more than the admission. The fixers wanted $10,000 each ($5), and the massage guys were waiting for us too. They wanted $5,000 each. And of course the women who tried to smother us—they sneered and gave us a Spanish cussing when we gave them $2,000 each.

Once we paid off the hoser girls and refused to give everyone more money, a small van packed with pasty Germans piled out. Our fixers were gone in a flash and everyone resumed their positions.

We stripped in a tiny closet-sized change house and headed back to Cartagena for a serious shower. My hair was scarecrow-like, our skin grey with mud streaks and seaweed.

It was obvious. This was the very best thing to do in Cartagena.

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The Ms. Adventures of Kim and Jules in Colombia

Contrary to popular belief, Kim and I don’t actively search out adventure. The most innocent intentions somehow end with us sleeping in our 4×4 during a 180km/hour windstorm in Iceland, in the belly of a cave in Belize with a guide on the lam from the police (who made the BBC news), or in a near fistfight with a cabbie in Alexandria, Egypt who wouldn’t let us have our backpacks until we paid him double the price.

Of course we had misadventures in Colombia. Such as, let’s go to Playa Cristal by boat.


Hell Ride #1

Boat captains in Taganga had been after us for two days to see the most beautiful beach in Colombia. White sand they promised. The Taganga beach was clogged with twentysomethings downing cheap rum and cans of tuna. Soccer balls whizzed by and there were wayward circus acts—jugglers and someone playing a kazoo-thing while balancing on a ball. Playa Cristal was tempting, just for temporary relief from the hippie commune of Taganga’s inlet. For $130,000 pesos ($65) we not only had transportation to Playa Cristal—we had a white water rafting-Niagara hydroplaning jet boat HELL RIDE. I was as white knuckled as my Grandmother on the 401. I really thought my bicep was going to blow as I held on to the side of the boat through Perfect Storm-sized swells. From the inlet, as we boarded the boat and were offered ancient broken-strap lifejackets (more likely to sink us than save us), the sea looked like glass. Of course.

As we rounded the bay and cut out to the open waters, Jesus. The swells were 12 feet high. The guy behind me had his head between his knees in no time. The guy in front of me flew completely out of his seat and smacked back down, shaken but not stirred. The boat sat three to four across on bench seats designed for Smurf bums. We had about 16 in our flimsy boat, all suckers for this white sand paradise. I knew already that I wouldn’t enjoy a minute on the beach, knowing in just a few hours we’d have to return to Taganga through the tsunami.

It was terrifying. Level-headed, rational Kim, was even a bit blanched. Seated beside me, she had my other bicep to hang on to. Our bags were saturated after the first wave—and it was nearly impossible to hide the camera from the breaching whale-like spray. We couldn’t talk—I tried once and nearly bit my tongue in two as the boat mounted a wave and dropped down again with a vertebrae-crunching smash. However, my neck audibly cracked during one of the smackdowns, and it’s the first time I’ve been able to properly rotate my neck to the right in months.

The constant, pummeling tidal waves of salt luckily left us half-blinded for 98% of the ride. When I could see (half-genuinely crying, half trying to squint out the salt burn), it was a complete horror. As we edged closer to the rocky shore I told Kim, “Don’t look now, or until we arrive.” Instead I stared at the guy’s crack ahead of me, also aware that I may get a sudden elbow to the head.

The sheer terror was compensated by temporary bliss. The boat first stopped at Playa Concha, a closer beach, and a second beach called 7 Olas. I wanted to bail at beach one and take the jungle route back with a machete. Screw the pre-paid boat ride.

By the time we reached Playa Blanca, we all looked like we had been on a roller coaster that had flown off its track and crash landed onto the beach. The water was calmer here, and remarkably turquoise. Worth the death-defying, nerve-fraying $130,000 one hour of self-talk? I’m not sure. Our adrenalin levels were off the Richter scale—we couldn’t even walk properly, our quads had stopped functioning. It’s probably one of the first signs of shock.

We dropped our bags and shakily set up camp. To quell our jitters we climbed the hill to the El Mirador for a tranquilizing view of the bay and much needed liquid courage. I could barely wrap my fingers around the beer bottle—I was still all jitters. Kim and I could hardly speak—our wide eyes and head shaking communicated all we needed too.


Exhausted, we passed out on our blanket. It took a few hours to calm down again and be able to properly walk the length of the beach. We drank more beer and were nervous to eat—we could just imagine the boatload back with everyone chucking up fried tilapia and rice. We figured eating would be wise as we had gut rot from the cow patty-sized cookies we bought from a woman plying the beach. Made of sugar, pineapple and coconut, they could have doubled as body exfoliants. We ordered chicken and coconut rice with fried plantain and suddenly saw our boat captain giving us the “come on!” signal. What? We looked at our watch—we weren’t supposed to depart until 4:00 and it was just 3:15. I explained the situation to our server in Spanish charades. He promised in would be ready in a few minutos. Pacing, he finally packed it up and asked for $45,000 pesos ($23 for a beach shack resto operating over an open fire with Styrofoam coolers for refrigeration). Grossly overpriced by about three times for the shiny white tourists. Oh, we battled. An expat jumped in and we made off with one chicken and rice lunch and two beers for $20,000 ($10). We ran for our boat and joked that we could eat it on the way back to Taganga. Right. I could just imagine the rice in the hair of everyone behind us. It was probably best that we didn’t have an opportunity to eat. I’m sure it would have been barfed up over the side twenty minutes in.

And, that was our innocent little day trip to the not-white (but ‘light’ sand) beach at Playa Cristal. Not recommended.

Awesome Idea #2–A 1.5 hour Motorbike Ride Up a Mountain


Back in December, I had come across an intoxicating site for the El Dorado Bird Reserve. It’s known as the “Holy Grail” of the birding world and that made it a no-brainer. Colombia has over 1,700 bird species (Canada sits around the sub-500 mark in comparison). The subtropical montane forest sits in the clouds at 1,900 meters. The site bragged about the “Treehouse” where you could take in the snow-laden Sierra Nevada mountain range and the Caribbean coastline.

I read off the pertinent details to Kim—it was an expensive sleep at $160 (as we had already booked $32 cabanas and a beachfront casita for $90/night), but, you could wake up in the clouds! With toucans! I copied out the directions—it would be quite simple, just two hours from Santa Marta. In Minca (550 meters), the site suggested we could easily find 4×4 transport to the bird reserve.


We arrived in Minca and learned that no, we wouldn’t be able to find a 4×4. Only pre-booked groups travelling with an agency had that luxury. We would have to go by motorbike. With our packs. At that point, early in our travels, our bags were clocking in at 23 and 31 kilos. The drivers didn’t have extra helmets—of course. Even the Sons of Anarchy wear helmets! Kim was an even whiter shade of pale (and, that takes effort as she is brown as a coconut from just an hour in the sun)—and she had even owned a motorcycle years ago! If she was nervous, hell, I was done for. But, I did grow accustomed to kamikaze moto taxis all over Uganda and Kenya. The Playa Cristal boat was my personal hell, at least we were on land.


We negotiated $40,000 each, one-way, thinking maybe we could hitchhike back down the mountain with other guests possibly in a 4×4. Re-jittered we asked the motorbike dudes to give us 10 minutes to grab some snacks (some cooked ‘sausages’ which are Colombian code for wieners and a block of salty cheese). “Let’s get a beer,” Kim said, focussed. I looked at my watch—it was just 10am.

We chugged our beers and mounted the bikes. Luckily the guys balanced our packs on the front of the bikes, giving us a little more freedom to hang on to the bike for dear life.

The ‘road’ up to El Dorado was merely a suggestion. It was full of meteorite-sized potholes that could swallow the entire bike. The ‘road’ was washed out in several places as mountain streams gushed and bled without boundary. We passed coffee pickers, Wagyuu Indians—and probably a lot of other things but I could barely see as I was getting whipped with so many ferns and low-lying branches.


Kim had already roared off into the ether and I couldn’t believe we had 90 minutes on the back of a bike to endure. Halfway, hip flexors well-seized, our drivers pulled over to a shack selling gas in Coca Cola bottles—and, actual Coca Cola. Local men were doing shots of something clear (possibly also gasoline) and had music blasting into the jungle at rave levels. Kim and I shook our heads at their primitive houses—all rigged with Massey Hall-worthy sound systems.

Once we got into the we-probably-won’t-die groove, the ride was a cool and intimate passage through verdant tracks. I thought of Ewan Macgregor and Charley Boorman and their 30,000km ride around the world—albeit on tricked out BMW bikes, but still. Neon blue Morpho butterflies flitted across our path and I craned my head to see a pack of Santa Marta parakeets take to the sky.

Arriving at El-Dorado with Jell-o limbs, we were thrilled. Now this was worth the bum chafe and compressed vertebral discs. As our drivers took a break from the Thighmaster workout, I let my teeth unclench. Yes, more beer. It had proven its worth as our magical calming elixir so far.

As we waited for our room key, Kim and I stepped on to the balcony of the Treehouse. Sharing notes on our journey up, the fear factor and anxiety exited the moment we trained our eyes on the hummingbird feeders at El Dorado. There were over fifty hummingbirds in our sight. A hand’s reach away! It was like a hummer flash mob, with eight different species lining up at a time.


El Dorado was electric with sound, the buzz and twit of the hummers, distant birds in the canopies…this misadventure was awesome. Oh, and  we couldn’t hitch a 4×4 ride out, we had to call upon our motorbike dudes again–and had to wear our packs down to distribute the weight and momentum better. As top-heavy as we were, at least we had spine protection on the return trip.


Brain wave #3: Flamingo Stalking

Again, it all unfolded so innocently. We were sitting outside our casita at La Sirena in Palomino, watching the sky turn cantaloupe with dusk. Bats had begun to swirl about as we closed our books and opened wine. A woman approached us with a broad smile. “Do you speak English?”


“Where did you find that wine?”

We told her the secret location of the only red wine available in Palomino. At 13,000 pesos ($6.50), ithe Chilean G7 surprisingly didn’t taste like cough syrup or perfume. We chatted about our Colombian route, comparing itineraries and soon met the rest of Joanna’s Polish crew—her husband Lukas and daughters, Caroline and Natasha.


Three days later we somehow convinced this lovely Polish family to join us on a flamingo expedition. Kim and I had found a tour operator who dropped his price handsomely with talk of more participants. The flamingo sanctuary was only an hour and fifteen minutes away, near Riohacha. We could have jumped on a local bus to Camarones and hired motorbikes and found a boat captain for a few bucks cheaper, but, the deal seemed sweet. For $70,000 pesos ($35), ECOAndes would take us to the reserve, arrange a boat (a traditional wooden boat we were promised) and include lunch (to take advantage of the local delicacy—the camarones. Shrimp.

We wondered how seven of us would fit in his vehicle—a 1979 Sierra Nevada. “No problem, it is perfect for seven.” Actually, it was perfect for nine. After picking us up near our hotel we stopped in front of his business—to load up his wife and son. “If they stay at home, they are boring.”


When Andres loaded extra cushions into the back of the cab, Joanna joked that “It’s for the victims.” After just five minutes, we all felt like we had gas poisoning. The old Sierra vibrated like one of the Niagara Falls honeymoon suite heart-shaped numbers that you added quarters too. Kim pointed as Andres took out the key from the ignition and the truck continued running—as he added more gas! Illegal gas at that—found all along the roadsides in plastic bottles from Venezuela.

I was certain that after an hour in the truck, we would be hallucinating flamingos if anything.

What was advertised as a “sail” in a boat ended up being a push. Two kilometres out and two kilometers back. Did I mention that it was 1,008 degrees that day? The traditional wooden boat was not traditional at all. The sail had seen its day in the sun, but, was not the dhow I had imagined. Nothing was as imagined. The boat scraped bottom the entire way as our captain pushed us around Flamingo Lake.

Our guide was rather unhelpful in the narration. When I locked our binoculars on the first flamingo in the distance Andres said, “That is not a flamingo. It is a pink duck.” Pink duck? As we grew closer I realized it was a roseate spoonbill! Pink duck my ass.

We found more spoonbills, eating shrimp like Pacman as we cruised past, unnoticed. There were a few egrets and gulls, but, largely, it was us, the Polish family and the broiling sun. We exchanged fun banter and swapped recipes and talked about swapping houses even. The girls were little Nat Geo photographers in training, and were as enthused as us about the approaching pink blur. I asked Andres if he was taking us on a wild goose chase—and then had to explain the expression. When he pointed out where the flamingo puppies could be found, well, we needed an explanation. Poopies? Flamingo shit? “No, puppies. Like babies.” Oh.


The stretch of cotton candy pink along the mangroves turned into nearly a hundred flamingoes, picking their way elegantly across the placid lake (a huge contrast to the Caribbean swells to Playa Cristal). They walked in synchro, largely undisturbed by us, on skinny legs that could double as chopsticks.


When they took flight, it really was a moment of awe. The stuff and footage they make astounding documentaries with. But, we were really hot. And thirsty. And, we all smelled like gas. If somebody lit a match, the boat would have exploded and landed in Panama.

The shore was like an oasis. We were all delirious and dreaming of cold beers and this much bragged about lunch of traditional shrimp. Joanna had the same vision as Kim and I—big tiger shrimp on the grills with just a squeeze of lime juice.

Reality bites. The shrimp were indeed shrimp—almost impossible to find in the rice. They were the babiest of baby shrimp. Possibly even Sea Monkeys? Lunch was a lunch bag letdown. Order a beer, skip the camarones.

But first. The shore. 1,008 degrees. I’m not sure if it was huffing gas for an hour, the sizzling sun, dehydration or what—but, I suddenly had to shit my pants. My stomach churned and clenched. I thought I might barf too. Now, remember, we were in a tiny boat with a nice Polish family, in knee-deep water. What was I to do? Hop off the boat and squat in the water and say, “cover your ears?” What’s that expression? Dance like nobody is watching? Or, in my case, crap like nobody is watching? Oh, my stomach was sour. I tried self-talk and didn’t dare broadcast my concern to anyone. I looked through the binoculars and saw a turned over boat on shore that I could probably go behind.

As we slid in, the last painful stretch, I didn’t know what end to cover. As we stepped out of the boat I said to Kim, “I have to go shit behind that boat.”

“Babe, you can’t! There’s nowhere to hide. Everyone in the village will see you.”

I was delirious and stepping so cautiously over the parched earth. Wearing shorts, I knew one misstep would reveal all. Kim talked me off the cliff. “There will be a toilet up here, just walk slow. You’ll be okay.”

I was drained of colour and self-talk. The Polish family was far ahead now and I saw the door with Bano scrawled on it. And $1,000 below. I pushed open the door and hovered. There was no seat, just that nice hot sewage smell. I had sweat trickling down my ribs, on my brow and upper lip. As I hovered I could see the bathroom attendant looking at me through the crack in the door. Nice. Crap like nobody is watching.

I made it just in time. Barely. I came out and sat at the table with everyone in a cold sweat. Beer. Kim silently gave me the look and I reassured her that I survived. But eating shrimp and rice? The plate arrived with fried plantain cakes as heavy as hockey pucks and some sickly tomato slices. I tried one spoonful of the shrimp and rice and sat back, trying not to look at the plate. So much for an authentic camarones lunch.


On the ride back I hung my head out the gas mobile. We stopped for a few more bottles of gas, just to add to my hallucinations. It was touch and go for the rest of the night but, I gathered myself to have our nightly G7. Joanna and her family made their way over to La Sirena’s restaurant and raised her glass—she had found the coveted red wine.

We chided each other over the flamingo expedition. I smelled gas deep in my nostrils and bangs for days. We’ll never look at flamingoes quite the same way. Though, I’m ready for shrimp again.


Special thanks to the Polish family for comic relief—and the G7 wine you couldn’t finish before leaving La Sirena.

Worth it? Well, in our world yes. Though, we might suggest skipping the boat and walking across the lake to see the flamingos instead.

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The Best Places We Slept in 2014

Just like previous years, our 2014 travels completely surprised us. Some of our destinations were pre-meditated (my sister’s wedding in Lake Louise, Alberta), but more often, we found ourselves crawling around travel sites, geographically untethered, and suddenly booking flights to Zanzibar and the Magdalen Islands.

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We had bounced around the notion of Boston, Woods Island and Halifax as a romancey add-on to our week in Prince Edward Island visiting Kim’s parents in June. The flights and ferries didn’t jive. Either did the price tag. We watched a documentary on Sainte Pierre and Miquelon, a handsome self-governed territorial owned by France that sits just 25km from Newfoundland in the North Atlantic and were tempted. Further research and fawning indicated that we needed more than a three day drop-in to do the islands and croissants justice.

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I think it was a picture in Zoomer magazine that tipped us off on Canada’s biggest secret–the Magdalen Islands. Air Canada had a slew of flights or there was a five hour ferry from Souris, PEI. The Magdalens (enchanting francophone property of Quebec) were a digestible size that could be well-absorbed and criss-crossed in three days. When I randomly opened Claire Mowat’s memoir, My Travels with Farley, I had confirmation. “On a bright day in May, 1969, the Dar Herald airplane departing from Charlottetown for the Magdalens was only half full.” It was a sign!

In no particular order of awesomeness, here are the best places we slept in 2014.

Kichanga Lodge, Zanzibar

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We were quite innocently shovelling snow for the third time on a frozen January afternoon. As we tipped back hot cocoa laced with Kahlua, I hopped on expedia between shovels. Our table had a stack of library books on it—Bali, Tanzania, Vietnam. Monsoons and civil unrest crossed a few places out. Two days of flying and crappy layovers crossed off even more. Jumping between the and February forecasts, Zanzibar was a ringer for temperature, endemic monkeys, gin-coloured waters, slave history, caves and curries. Was it worth spending nearly 19 hours flying all the way to Africa for sunshine that could be found just a few hours away in Turks & Caicos or Curacao? Absolutely.

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The Kichanga Lodge is located on the Michamvi Peninsula, far from the “Italian Riviera” of the west coast. We really ruined ourselves for all future travels choosing Zanzibar. Our time at Kichanga was so spoiled and romantic. Often we were the only two on the beach. We had front row seats to canteloupe-coloured sunrises. A short walk towards Ras Mchamvi provided a view of the Indian Ocean that paralleled that from outer space. The tidal pools (the tide here goes out over a mile) were such a delight to poke around in. There are loads of sea urchins (easily avoided), but a very clear path out to remarkable sandbars and water so clear that you don’t even need snorkeling equipment. The lodge itself was a rustic marvel. At night a breeze swept through the open-concept candle-lit dining area. Almost everyone gathered earlier for drinks at the adjacent bar and lounge area where a carefully chosen soundtrack barely interrupted conversation. There were free bar snacks, piles of magazines and shelves of trader books for guests (though, if you are English-speaking, Dutch and German titles dominate!). The best perch was in the loft area above the bar and dining area where you could watch the moon rise and maybe have the company of one of the lodge dogs or cats at your feet.

We opted for the ocean front bungalow–the wide front porch with hammock and a love seat-sized chair was where we welcomed and closed each day–taking in the natural soundtrack around us. If you are a light sleeper, the night here is very “alive” (not with disco or music) with the buzz of cicadas, crashing waves, the resident donkeys in the distance and seemingly hundreds of crows at sunrise.

Nearby at Ras Mchamvi you can grab blue marlin burgers with fries or club sandwiches for $5. Dinner at Kichanga ranged from a nightly feature of barbequed crab, octopus, squid or beef tenderloin. The Swahili night (Sundays) was our favourite–golden samosas, collards, fried vermicelli, a local lime-broth soup with fried cassava, chicken and beef kebabs, baked eggplant and cashew brittle. And the King fish curry? Outstanding.

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Whether you choose to flop into a hammock by the pool or grab lounge chairs under the coconut trees on the upper private beach, there is great solitude here. The beachcombing on the way to The Rock (25 minute walk) is unreal–and you may just see some blue monkeys in the trees along the beach. If you’re looking for rustic, private and reconnection–this is the lodge for you. If you’re expecting fancy a la carte meals, air conditioning, flat screen televisions, coordinated beach activities and a night disco–go to Kendwa (the Italian Riviera of Zanzibar). There’s a wi-fi connection available for a fee in the main lodge but otherwise, Kichanga is (hurray) off the grid. You will be amazed by the recharge found in stargazing, tidal pool exploration, lazy days of reading and quiet dinners sipping wine. Go! Like us you will wonder where you could ever travel to that would come close to the unparallel beauty of the Indian Ocean and the peace found at Kichanga.

Ocean Bungalow Double (2 adults, standard rate) $280/night with half board options

La Rose des Vents, Magdalen Islands, Quebec

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We arrived poorly packed for the pissy east coast climate, leaning more towards an optimistic June forecast of 25+ degrees. Not a wavering 13-15 degrees with pelting rain. We were both wearing all the long layers that we had brought, knowing full well that we were travelling to islands known for excessive and relentless wind. The Magdalens are a kite-boarding and hang-glider haven. Every B&B and restaurant had “wind” in the name. Though my Francais is extremely scratchy at best (despite Madame Massicotte’s best efforts in highschool), I did know that “vent” translated to “wind.”

The kindness of the locals was ten-fold. In the fog duvet and ensuing night fall, we couldn’t find our B&B after three U-turns on the main road into Bassin. Kim stopped our little Fred Flintstone rental (an Aveo?) in front of a convenience store where I ran in, armed with maps. Me being the “more French fluent” of the two of us. (*Note: totally need to check out this Rosetta Stone thing).

I asked the cashier, “ou a la B&B?” while pointing to La Rose Des Vents address I had scribbled down. The cashier started blankly looking at my entire page of notes which outlined our itinerary of smoked herring, the cheese factory and beers to try. She shook her head and rang through a bag of Doritos and a Pepsi for the buying customer.

Conversation between them ensued. It sounded heated, but, was just normal chatter. Hands waved, eyes went back and forth to me and suddendly the cashier was give me the “shoo” sign. But, she was shooing me in the direction of the Doritos guy. Doritos guy gave me a “come, come” sign (I was transgressing into a golden retriever) and I followed him into the parking lot. He gave me a head nod as he got into his vehicle and I pointed to the Aveo and Kim and he nodded enthusiastically. I had no idea what we had just agreed to, but, he had chips and didn’t look serial-killer-ish.

I told Kim to follow him, for lack of better ideas.

“He’s taking us there?”

“I dunno. I think so.They didn’t speak English, but, it seemed like we were supposed to follow him.”

Oh, so trusting–but, we had a witness in the cashier. Sure enough, the Dorito fan brought us directly to the B&B (which we would have NEVER found in the soup fog, missing the critical street name that we needed to turn on to (which wasn’t on our touristy cartoon-like map). He stopped, honked, pointed and pulled a U-turn and roared off.

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Kim described the Magdalens best (once the fog lifted the next morning and we could actually see beyond 10 feet). “It’s like a chunk of Iceland broke off and floated south.” Indeed, the colourful homes against the elephant grey sky and gulf waters was pure Reykjavik. We swooned over countless homes–lime green, purple and orange beauties atop cliffs and so isolated from the density of Cap aux Meules. By the mid-afternoon, we had agreed on over 50 homes that we could instantly move into, without debate.

Our B&B innkeeper at Rose du Vents was gentle, engaging and a dynamo at breakfast, plying us with plates of local cheese, fresh cranberry studded loaves, yogurt with a stir of thick apple sauce and granola. My sister would have purred over the daily fresh fruit shake and foamy lattes. Best yet was breakfast with the horses–watching her two lovelies graze and gallop just feet from the solarium. Two cats circled our ankles inside the house and Genvieve’s Irish Setter made us feel welcome with eager headbutts and enthusiasm.

We found ourselves cross-legged in bed early. The sky would still be pink (the sun so desperate to break the clouds) when we’d retreat to our suite. We could still hear the horses huffing and moving about as we tried to down the marechal plonk we bought at PEI from Rossignol. Kim read Coelho’s memoir of his journey on the Camino while I was deep into Bruce Chatwin. The day’s thrills, timeless beach-combing on Sandy Hook, and deep satiation from the punishing climb up the Demoiselle trail for an unobstructed 360 view were the perfect stew for sleep.

$85 per night, including decadent breakfast

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The Adventure Hotel, Nelson, British Columbia


The Adventure Hotel is super sleek, sexy and urban hip. The location is primo for exploring Nelson whether you choose to run along the waterfront trail, pub-hop or poke around the gear stores. The prices stay the same year-round, and for $115 bucks, the queen rooms offer a unique sleep. It’s industrial meets heritage meets contemporary. We actually eyeballed the impressive shower design for our own home. The ceilings are painted orange and with the exposed brick and piping, groovy hallways, Warhol-type carpeting and arty lobby, you just feel cool being there. Notice the bike parts embedded in the lobby counter? The common room is so tastefully designed–it had the Icelandic esoteric with the punchy colours, communal wood harvest table, euro lighting and stringent approach to a space. There’s also a patio that received the same discerning traveller treatment.


Coffee is provided in the morning in the common room and there were other options for prepping light breakfasts if needed (toasters, etc.). But, even after downing some Adventure Hotel coffee I’d head to Oso Negro for baseball-sized muffins and a dandelion latte. We’d recommend this hotel for anyone that actively leans towards charm, history and smart styling.

$115 per night includes unlimited stiff  Kicking Horse Coffee in the morning

The Naramata Heritage Inn and Spa, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia


After a punishing drive from Lake Louise, Alberta with so many miles logged between Nelson and Osooyos, we were ready to park the rental vehicle and enjoy the property. This is what is required: as you slip through the Naramata region, grab a bottle or two from Therapy or Blasted Church (our faves) and stop at the Naramata General Store. You can find charcuterie, cheese, six-packs and snacks for the night and baked goods for the morning. The hotel was a step back in time, complete with creaking stairs, romantic soaker tubs and a fun wine cellar pub for those happy to not leave the hotel. The breakfast (included) is decadent–three egg frittatas and eggs Benny with back bacon and fresh melon. Good coffee (as much as you can slug back) is available until nearly noon I think.


The rooms are immediately inviting (yeah! I’m always so impressed when rooms DON’T have flatscreen tv’s! A focus on actual conversation and spending time with each other!) and there’s also a huge wrap around balcony (access from inn rooms) where we reclined and opened a bottle of red at dusk. It was serene, so still–the wharf is just minutes away (walking), but we were quite content with our perch and our general store purchases to nibble on. You must have a bath here–the Aveda products make it all the more indulgent. There’s lavender linen spray even–everything to encourage and enhance a lovely sleep in the former girls’ school house. The bed was the most comfortable one of the seven hotels we’d slept in on our road trip. Creep around the library upstairs and be sure to look at the vintage letters framed in the lobby. You’re paying for an opportunity to sleep in deeply distilled history. This was my birthday pick–and, it felt very spoiled and regal to stay in the inn. The staff are enjoyable and are quick to deliver ice or olives, whatever the request may be.


Take advantage of this beauty and spend as much time as possible on the grounds and in your room. But, do make sure you walk a bit of the Kettle Valley Trail in the morning to the Little Tunnel. You’ll be well-rested for the hike.

$180 per night, including breakfast


Caberneigh Farms, Uxbridge, Ontario

(in particular, site #860 and the Airstream)


We’ve bragged about this pastoral joint before. Where else can you drink locally brewed beer (from the Old Flame Brewing Co.) and have chickens sit on your lap? If the chickens make room—there are three Chihuahuas ready to take roost as well. Or, how about a cat? You have a choice between Albert, Frankie and Patapouf—all aggressive cuddlers.

The gracious hosts PJ and Nicole know how to woo well. They even have one of those fancy old school popcorn trolley carts for the outdoor Jiffy Pop shoulder season. And PJ? Her carrot cake is probably the best baked thing I’ve had, ever. We’ve been to the farm many times over the years (forcing them into hosting Thanksgiving and New Year’s on a few occasions)—living vicariously through them and a tranquil life on the land with horses and even a darling pig named Olive. There’s zero light pollution here, save for the bonfire. Glasses of wine are bottomless and the grazing is superb. If you happen to visit during Wimbledon, there are golden waffles with strawberries and a cloud of whipped cream to balance your mimosa intake. The eggs at breakfast are sourced from the coop just 40 paces away, PJ’s travels make for the most impressive duty-free liquor cabinet around. And there’s just cool stuff to chat about—their stack of Dwell magazines is an indicator of their design chops. Every piece of art (welded, quilted, printed, repurposed) and furniture has a story, as do all the animals.

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Far, far away from their former urban Cabbagetown life, their property stretches across 50 acres and Elvis the hound dog and Ripley (a lab/shepherd mix) are always game for rip through the woods. Though, keep close watch on Willy the Jack Russell, as he has a homing instinct for the pond and his doggy paddle isn’t what it used to be. If you’re feeling a little Kentucky Derby, Nicole has a complex steeple chase at the ready.


Hanging out in Caberneigh is like a suspension in time. Together, we move about the house from couch to barstool to the kitchen counter to Adirondacks, laughing the entire time. PJ and Nicole ooze love for their home, entertaining, everything with fur and feathers, tequila and each other.

It’s an invite-only kinda place, but we might be able to get you on the preferred guest list if you play your cards right. It’s one of our favourite places to sleep. And, we get dibs on the Airstream.


If  you want to read about more suite sleeps, here are the best places we slept in 2013 and the best places we slept in 2012 and  the best sleeps in 2011.

Categories: Passport Please | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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