Passport Please

my carbon footprints and passport stamps around the world

Prince Edible Island: An Insider’s Guide to Eating Your Way Around PEI

It seemed appropriate that the first two songs we heard in our fancy Mini Clubman rental were:

Here Comes the Rain Again—Eurythmics

You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet—BTO

And, nope we hadn’t seen anything yet because the fog from Charlottetown’s airport to Summerside was like driving into a giant steam room.

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I’ve been to the island ten times now. Kim has been every year since she was probably six (insert station wagon family vacation and non-stop 20-hour drive here. Never to be repeated again. God bless planes). I never tire of the Maritime quirk: Smelt Festivals, foxes so abundant and tame that you can hand-feed them peanut butter sandwiches, Pig & Whistles (still not sure what they are, but it sounds interesting) and Bingo at every church corner.

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When you ask for directions in PEI, you often get an escort. And, even more frequently, the place or person you are looking for is a relative of some sort. We were driving blindly around Ellerslie looking for a new brewery called Moth Lane. We were expecting signage but the GPS was at a loss too. We found a cherub of a man licking a vanilla twist at the Kenny Dairy Bar (probably a relative of Kim’s) with his son. When we asked if he knew where Moth Lane was he said that he “sure do. My cousin owns it.” He was driving right past it in fact, and would happily ‘drive us there.’ And he did, finally flashing his lights 10 kilometers later at Moth Lane. We peeped our horn in thanks and drove down a road that had Kim doubtful. It seemed more like a tractor route, the kind of place where a kidnapper would take you. But, we found it, and a minute later, our direction giver wheeled in behind us and waved. Obviously he thought our honk meant we needed him.

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Sidebar: It is definitely worth stopping at any dairy bar or bingo hall to find Moth Lane on Mickie Allen Shore Road. Grab a Motor Boat’R and No Exit Pale for $6 bucks a pint. And, you’ll want a glass to go. I mean, the actual glass, not a glass of beer to go (but, that would be nice too). The branding of Moth Lane comes with a sly grin from the owner’s son-in-law. “My father-in-law’s dad always used to look for a porch light on.” He was like a moth to the flame, hoping to find late night company and a place to go for a drink. Their pint glasses read: “Drawn to the grain like a moth to a flame,” in tribute.

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There’s a dog greeter (we’re not even sure if he belongs to the brewery or a nearby house, but, he’s game for belly rubs of any length). On the upstairs patio the uninterrupted view of the bleached dunes across the Conway Narrows is probably one of the best places to drink a beer on the island.

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But, enough beer drinking. We did educational things too, like visiting the International Fox Museum and Hall of Fame. Who knew that Summerside was the hotbed of the fox farming industry? In the early 1900s there were over 8000 fox ranches dotted around the island. A pair of breeding silver foxes sold for over $35,000. The museum is a curious mix of relics, pelts, heritage and an actual tattoo kit that was used to mark the ears of the foxes in captivity. If you like odd museums, put it in your itinerary. We later learned that we could have participated in Summerside’s Fox Hunt—which involves trying to find a dozen hidden foxes (designed by Malpeque Iron Works) around town.

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What first-timers or ten-timers will notice most in PEI is the lack of fences between houses. I asked Kim, “Is it because of friendliness between neighbours or high winds?” She is 100% sure it’s the friendliness that is integral to island life. But, for anyone who has lived in the suburbs, or anywhere in Toronto, or anywhere other than PEI, really, it’s a remarkable thing to see. Even the birds live in communes.

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PEI is much like a living museum of the dying arts. This is a place where everyone still plays cards and gets together to jar pickles. There are still proudly displayed spoon collections and quilts, advertisements for lawn bowling members, strawberry socials and cut-throat crokinole matches. People still do embroidery here and bake from scratch with lard and go to church and get the daily paper (The Guardian: Covering Charlottetown Like the Dew).

We’re talking about the homeland of Chef Michael Smith (shameless plug for my sister and Harrowsmith: check out her Spring 2017 feature “FireWorks and Sticky Buns” about her edible bike ride along PEI’s Confederation Trail). The lanky, surfer-haired proprietor of the Bay of Fortune Inn and FireWorks restaurant embodies all that the island is. He’s the kind of guy who can put you under a starry-eyed spell while making apple strudel, regardless of your persuasion or feelings about strudel. And, we saw him. Up close and personal at Upstreet Brewing Company with his new summer staff. For me, it was a day of National Geographic moments. First, spotting eight foxes sunning themselves (with the kits entertaining themselves with a dead mouse) in Sherwood, next: Chef Michael Smith in his natural habitat!

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Tasting notes: Order the Upstreet burger, simply stacked with iceberg, tomato, local bacon, stretchy cheese and a magical barbecue sauce. The beet and kale salad doused in a Rhuby Social (their rhubarb/strawberry beer darling) vinaigrette is very Instagrammy. Have a Rhuby on nitro (it gives it some party fizz, like beer champagne!) or 80’s Bob Scottish Ale.

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Be sure to check out The Worse Case Scenario Survival Game from the jammed board game shelf (Uno! Exploding Kittens! Battleship!) and read through some of the cards (it’s like Trivial Pursuit–even a little more trivial in comparison). Over a burger and beer we learned how to outrun a rhino (and crocodile, but not at the same time), how to eat worms, ram a car at high speeds, why you should apply meat tenderizer to a bee sting and, how to give an attacker an eye jab.

While you’re in the vicinity, be sure to check out nearby Urban Beehive Project initiated by architects Silva Stojak and Shallyn Murray. Located in Charlottetown’s largest urban garden, the PEI Farm Centre. Learn all about honey with a hands-on approach (well, not too hands-on). The plexiglass viewing panes allow you to be a Peeping Tom and see the drones and Queen bustling away, creating their wares.

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If you are seeking off the beaten Anne of Green Gables path encounters, put Glasgow Glen Farms on your custom map too. One step inside you’ll wonder why they haven’t bottled up the wood-fire pizza smell and sold it as a cologne.

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Pumping out eight pizzas at a time (140 on a peak summer day), the bearded crew led us through a divine sampling of Lady Gouda cheese (also produced here). There are 17 varieties from fenugreek to pizza to beer gouda. You won’t walk away empty handed. We ordered a Hawaiian to go with that lovely blistered crust and heaps of oozy gouda, and wedge of the beer gouda. Sensing a theme here? Saturdays are a hot mess here as locals pile in for the $2 cinnamon buns as big as at toddler’s head. Did I mention the freshly baked brioche? This is the stuff of dreams.

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As a ten-timer to the island, here are the annual necessary stops/eats:

  1. The Charlottetown Farmer’s Market. Kim would insist that you order flaky veggie samosas from Out of Africa. I’d send you to Gallant’s Seafood for a buttery lobster grilled cheese.
  2. Sugar Skull Cantina on Water Street in Charlottetown. It wasn’t open yet, but we love the co-owner’s other groovy HopYard resto: pick a vinyl, split some tapas. The Cantina will be all tacos and tequila. Say no more!
  3. Noelle and Nancy’s Malpeque mussels in a white wine broth flecked with onion and beautiful bacon. Noelle and Nancy are friends of ours, not restaurant owners, but, they’d probably welcome you in if you brought some white wine and a baguette. And Noelle would probably send you home with a jar of Maritime chow.
  4. Albert & Crown Pub, Alberton. A $7 halibut fish burger and pile of salt-tossed Cavendish fries? Simple math.
  5. Malpeque Iron Works in Summerside. Eric Shurman’s work is a marvel. If we could only bring these crows back as a carry-on!

DSCF79606. Penderosa Beach. This is why you need to be friends with locals like Noelle and Nancy who share the best kept secrets!

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7. One more thing: You need to have fish tacos at the Island Stone Pub (the storied old train station) in Kensington.

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Corn Meal Crusted Haddock, Cilantro Lime Crema, cabbage, pico, pickled onions and rocket greens. This is the whispered sweet nothings that I like to hear…

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For scavenger hunt fans–here’s your challenge. Find these:

Fox Plops, Chow and Blueberry Grunt.

And, no, it’s not a band name.

 

 

Categories: Eat This, Sip That, Passport Please, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Best Places We Slept in 2016

Dear Diary: It’s been six months and a few days since we sold our darling stone cottage in Galt, Ontario. Since, we have taken up residence at the storybook Caberneigh Farms with endless thanks to our friends Nicole and PJ who had a fancy barn with wi-fi and vacancy. We are in good company with Scotch mint-sucking horses and Olive the pig as neighbours. We even have our own resident barn cats, Lucy and Freddie. We’ve been spoiled by a steady supply of just-laid eggs and jars of Caberneigh Just Hitched honey. We’ve been privy to Nicole’s custom velvety egg nog and crème brulee. And scotch-tasting sessions with PJ, but that’s another story. And doesn’t involve eggs, though a Scotch egg would be really good right about now.

Bonus: Kim has almost earned her 4-H badge, John Deere tractor license and chainsaw operator certification. In addition to pig hoof trimming, we’ve learned how to contend with preventing pig break-in and enters, and how to keep four cats and six dogs from becoming a circus act.

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What we never dreamed is that we’d still be without a forwarding address six months later. (Or, learning the fine art of chicken wrangling).

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We packed our storage pod strategically—but, without thinking that we might need to access such things as winter boots and hockey equipment. Oh well, winter is almost over, right?

In six months we have slept in so many beds and scoured Ontario’s waterfront lots from Tobermory to Perth to Prince Edward County and over a dozen lakes in the Frontenac. Coinciding with this magical quest: finding hotels in parts unknown. Some have been dreamy and a complete refuge with Calgon-take-me-away bathtubs to sink into while others could have doubled for serial killer-type movie sets.

Normally I round up the best places we have slept each year. It’s been an annual tradition that we have enormous fun ‘researching.’ However, this year it seemed that for every remarkable place we slept, there was a nightmare hotel to match it.

The  18% Cream of the Crop:

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Langdon Hall Country House Hotel and Spa, Blair, Ontario $310 midweek, $405 weekends

We kind of ruined ourselves by staying here. Yes, this is the same hotel I worked at in my previous incarnation as a massage therapist. To be on the receiving end of all the luxury is a marvelous thing. The grounds are not only manicured, but pedicured too. It’s like driving into a postcard. Deer tiptoe by, smoke curls out of the chimneys, and the brioche French toast with Earl Grey tea-infused maple syrup is like breakfast giving you a big hug. Langdon has its merits for all seasons, but staying on a deep freeze night in December makes the in-room fireplace the best balm.

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Suggestion? Pack a bottle of bubbly, get that fire roaring and order in the sumptuous $25 Wilks’ burger piled high with black pepper bacon and molasses compote and Smoked Majestic Henry Cheese. The crispy skin-on fries are served with an addictive mustard seed and thyme aioli.

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Be sure to sink into that gorgeous bathtub and prepare yourself for a rejuvenating sleep on a cloud.

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WHITNEY MANOR, Kingston, Ontario $179 HOT DEAL (reg. $275)

This was my birthday junket. A road trip around Wolfe Island, Stone City Ales and mac n’ cheese-stuffed grilled cheese sandwiches from MLTDWN (get it? Meltdown). And, this. The Murphy Suite–which is exactly the kind of place and space we want to buy.

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With exposed limestone, post and beam, a dreamy loft bedroom and soaker tub–this 1100-square foot suite is unforgettable. We wanted to lock the door and swallow the key.

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Suggestion: There’s a full kitchen, so bring all the fixings you need for the barbie and breakfast so you don’t have to leave until check-out!

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NEVIS ESTATES B&B, Perth, Ontario $175/night

After an extensive house hunting and gathering mission in the Frontenac, we were weary, soggy and starved. Our intrepid realtor, Barb Shepherd physically drove us to “Jenny’s Place” and introduced us. She insisted we stay there and skip the only other available option—the $189 standard Queen at the Best Western. She assured us we’d love Jenny, everyone did. Barb was right.

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As soon as we entered the Colonial heritage stone estate (c.1842), we wanted to curl up with cocoa and read Thoreau. Jenny is like your favourite blanket: warm, comforting, reassuring. She listened to our disenchantment with finding a house and rallied our spirits with her own story with a tap root deep in New Zealand. The house she has renovated with her husband is a true marvel, it really feels like a fun sleepover with a close friend. Breakfast is an elaborate affair and though Kim and I usually cringe at chirpy early morning convos with assorted guests at B&B’s, the two twentysomething girls we sat with were colourful and engaging. Between frying bacon and flipping fluffy omelettes, Jenny joined in on the story telling, knowing both girls well from long-term stays.

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The chatty equestrians were part of Ian Millar’s (hello Big Ben!) Millar Brooke Farm and were hotly anticipating competition at the Royal Winter Fair. As a just-out-of-the-oven loaf of brown-sugar crusted banana bread was delivered to the table, the girls told us all about ‘cribbing,’ a phenomena that is akin to crack for horses. By biting and hooking their incisors on a stall door or fence, they flex their necks, contract their larynx and swallow air, creating a gasping or grunting sound that is addictive.

So, stay at Jenny’s for the Jacuzzi and take-home slices of can’t-get-enough banana bread. AND, ever-changing but illuminating breakfast conversation with other guests. Book the local lumber baron’s room, The Senator McLaren.

PULLMAN G BANGKOK, Thailand $200/night

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This place has sexy in spades. It’s contemporary, it smells like warm vanilla pudding. It’s whitewashed and just oozes cool with a low thumping soundtrack, zebra skins, faux safari trophy heads, Foosball and craft Thai beers at the adjoining bar (25 Degrees Burger, Wine & Liquor Bar). The Pullman G is like entering a Miami night club. The elevators pulse with non-stop video of seductive pouty-lipped Swedes and, in another, bike tires spinning with playing cards ticking in the spokes. The floor-to-ceiling windows in the suite are the perfect front row seat to Bangkok’s sky-on-fire sunsets.

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The breakfast bar here was an oasis after two weeks in China, eating starchy boxed breakfasts of white things: cakey muffins, stale croissants and white buns. At Pullman G, the detox juices beckon. There’s a granola and yogurt bar with all the tiny fixings. Real muffins stuffed with good stuff. You feel like you’ve taken your body to the spa, just by eating breakfast.

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EL SOL AZUL B&B, Las Galeras, Samana 50 Euros/night (dependent on season)

There’s no reason to subject yourself to the oft-icky trappings of an all-inclusive in the Dominican Republic. Swiss owners, Esther and Pierre have been in the hospitality industry for 11 years. They have everything figured out and know exactly how to exceed guest expectations.

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El Sol Azul is just 150m from the sea and minutes to the ‘downtown’ but tucked away in a pocket of serenity. The property is a showcase of tropical flowers and trees– crown of thorns, star fruit trees even! Pierre tends to them daily, usually with their lovely dog at his heels. There are two darling cats that live on the property too–and Caramel, loves to tease with her cute walk-by strut.

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The thatched roof bungalow style suites are Robinson Crusoe-like, but, with all the amenities.

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Breakfast is stellar. The spread is huge and European with fresh baguette, cheeses, local juices and punchy coffee. In addition to the continental fare, you can order eggs, any style and they come plated with ripe avocado and tomato.

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The pinwheel of homemade jams really puts Esther’s breakfast at the next level! I asked her for the coveted banana rum jam recipe–I don’t even make jam, but, this will be the exception–it tastes exactly like banana bread in a jar.

2016’s Nightmare Sleeps

Stone Church, Perth, ON $79/night (not incl. breakfast)

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The historic Gothic stone church home advertised on Airbnb looked promising. However, if we could have smelled those photos, we would have avoided booking a night. We were the only guests, despite the odd presence of 18 toothbrushes in the cup in the bathroom. Kim’s first comment was: “Ew. Keep your shoes on.” Second comment, “We’re definitely not showering here.”

We arrived late after another house hunt in the area. (This was before we were aware of Jenny’s place). The neighbours had Chubby Checker blasting as they sat in their yard just feet away. The house was a six feet away from Chubby Checker and five feet away from the major highway. We had already eaten, thank god—though the invite was there to make use of the ‘shared kitchen.’ I opened the cupboards looking for a beer glass and had a slight heave. I called Kim over—half the glasses had lipstick lips muddled around the lip of them.

The counter needed a good bleach and wipe. The fridge was so filthy and crumb-bound we didn’t even want to put our beer inside.

We took seats at the kitchen table (avoiding any additional contact with any surface of the house) and looked at online real estate. There wasn’t enough beer to inoculate us to sleep in such a dumpy cash grab Airbnb. We wondered if the sheets had even been laundered.

At 6am I awoked to Kim saying, “I’m ready to go when you are.”

And so we did. I’m not sure if we even brushed our teeth on the way out. That might explain the abandoned toothbrush collection.

Sandbanks Lakefront Airbnb, Prince Edward County, ON $140/night

Since when did Airbnb mean you never had to clean your house? We were APPALLED upon arrival. The junk lying around the house alone (old speakers, gym equipment, tools, tarps—all in disarray and decomposing). In the back, we were invited to join the owners on their outdoor furniture that looked like old car seats. From those ‘magical online photos’ we expected an ‘artist’s retreat’—whimsical, with a cute cat and a tiny firepit right on the beach. Sunsets! And, breakfast even—which most Airbnb properties don’t include. The room was small and a little dated with old-school paneling with a shared bathroom, but, we’d be taking advantage of the firepit and lake anyway.

Our house tour itinerary had us pulling in close to 8pm. We watched a couple carry their wailing newborn baby into the same house. We thought there was only one room in the entire home—not another greedy cash grab that had the owners bleeding money from offering ramshackle 70s shit hole rooms to unsuspecting guests—there were six of us jammed upstairs with walls as thin as a croissant flake. This was a cottage where NOTHING had ever been done in the form of upgrades. I might be making this up, but I’m pretty sure the toilet had one of those avocado green lid covers on it. With a matching pukey floor mat. The bathroom was straight out of 1962—the kind of place you want to put antibacterial gel on your hands and bum.

It was 100% gross, dark, mildewy and creepy. The couches sagged like tacos and looked like they were made out of cat litter. There were oil paintings and just weird things and weirder guests.

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Kim and I retreated to the lakeshore after hosing our legs with Off! Spray. We avoided the communal kitchen and opted to heat up refried beans hobo style on our Coleman stove (handily packed in the back of the Rogue) and make sloppy burritos on the beach, in the dark. We graciously said no to offers to join the owners and their neighbours for drinks in the car seats. We waited patiently until they left so we could start a fire (only to be joined by two urbanites who had never built or seen a bonfire before).

The only saving grace was the sunset. The sunset cost $140, but, we’ll take that.

You know, I really could go on in this scary segment from last minute middle-of-nowhere, we-have-no-other-choice Super 8’s in Trenton (insert train blasting past every 40 minutes on the tracks just outside the door—oh, and the neighbour’s AC unit that sounded like an elephant with asthma.

Belleville? Oh, there was a crappy one there. Popcorn ceilings, sink located outside the bathroom, squiggly hairs in the sheets and a carpet that was witness to someone’s bender and barf.

And, so begins 2017. Though we love to sleep around, we can’t wait to sleep in our very own bed (which is vertical in our storage pod in Ayr, Ontario), wherever and whenever that may be. Until then, home is where the barn is.

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Categories: Home Sweet Home, Passport Please, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Never Say Never: Except if it’s China

Last night we watched Years of Living Dangerously, an intelligent Nat Geo series that showcases the ugly mug of climate change. Guest host Sigourney Weaver chatted with notorious bigwigs in Hong Kong about China and its irrevocable reputation as “the dirty factory of the world.” With over a thousand coal plants, the juxtaposition is this: China was the world’s biggest investor in clean, renewable energy last year.

But in that same (gasping) breath, a tiny blurb in today’s Toronto Star: SMOG FORCES SCHOOLS, FACTORIES TO CLOSE. A national “red alert” forced 700 companies to stop production in Beijing, dozens of cities closed schools from Friday night until today (Wednesday) to reduce air pollution.

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Truth: If Beijing were a disease, landing at their airport is like touching down in jaundice. You feel your lungs collapse a little. Everything has a sepia tone—though the visibility of the smog blister surrounding the city is limited. We could barely see the incoming planes on the runway.

China was never on our wish list for two giant reasons: pollution and populace. But, somehow a dynamic deal ($3460 bucks each—15 nights in China and a 7 night extension in Phuket, Thailand) sucked us in like turkey stuffing-flavoured potato chips (yes, there is such a thing! And this is where you should funnel your money).

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Kim and I agreed to group travel even! Surely we were drugged, hypothermic (we booked in February) or we had a weak seat sale moment. The notion of future group travel was quickly cemented early on: we would NEVER do group travel again, or China. Or, Chinese food—which we didn’t even partake in before. Not even a single pineapple chicken ball in day-glo sweet and sour sauce in our seven years together.

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Earlier in the year, in dutiful preparation, I read Lost on Planet China: One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation (J. Maarten Troost).  I dictated most of it aloud to Kim, kinda in that wavering voice you get when you tell a ghost story by a bonfire. Lost on Planet China was like a Stephen King ripper. What had we done?

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Our local guide, Cathy, said two things (on day one) that set the tone:

“You need to wear your name tags, people. Because, you all look the same to me.”

“And, Mr. Hu is our second best bus driver. Our first is in the hospital.”

Kim and I learned these two things immediately:

“Bu Yao”—which means “I don’t want it.” But, with the wrong inflection, it can also mean “Don’t bite me” or, worse, “Stay with me!”

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“You can’t drink the food good here.” (Quote: Kim Kenny, after round 12 of bok choy and fish oil-slicked pork and slimy oyster mushrooms). Despite serious caution from Cathy about the thousand Chinese that went blind from drinking fake booze, we had to test the waters. There are startling legit numbers suggesting that 30% of alcohol in China is fake, thanks to bathtub booze productions that fill hooch in brand name bottles (with cocktails of antifreeze and methanol). Of the two group members we found genuine kinship with, one was a retired pharmacist. And, he was buying blended whiskey, so, we rationally thought, if the pharmacist is buying potential bathtub whiskey, then this Absolut vodka must be fine for us. (*Note: I did awake a few times the first night to train my eye on the only light in the hotel room—the green dot on the flat screen TV, to ensure that I wasn’t blind from booze). Also, March 1, Consumption Day in China, commemorates China’s changes to food inspection and booze legislation. Cheers to that.

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We’re not picky or snobby Western eaters (disclaimer: I’ve voluntarily eaten goat testicles and grasshoppers). We weren’t expecting the Mandarin or Canadianized Chinese food. But—where’s that great Peking duck? Those spicy sticky pork buns that I buy in Toronto’s Chinatown?

I was sharply reminded of my brother’s comment years ago, about Tim Horton’s French Cruller donuts. He said, “I’m surprised you like those. Don’t you find they leave an oil slick on the roof of your mouth?”

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This was our experience with the daily Chinese buffet of duck clavicle and gluey congee (porridge’s weird Chinese cousin) and limp veg. After I tried the Sichuan numb & spicy pork dish in Wuhan my adventures in eating skidded to a halt. My tongue tingled and then went into a terrifying numbed state for a solid 20 minutes. This dish was like party drugs for your mouth. We bellied up to so many disappointing My Big Fat Chinese Wedding (*not a real movie. I don’t think.) white-riced lazy Susan meals that by day three, Kim and I looked at each other with that knowing face, “Clif bar?”

Our guide (hands on hips) was disappointed that we didn’t try the “boiling pork with charlies.” (*’Charlies’ are chilies, it took a while to figure this one out). Soundtrack: if it wasn’t Celine Dion it was Zamfir: Scarborough Fair, Chariots of Fire—all were given the pan flute treatment.

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Despite all that (and because we found great international Lays potato chips with flavours like grilled squid, buttery scallops with garlic, finger-lickin’ braised pork and Italian red meat sauce) we still agree. It’s important to travel to places that challenge your palate and patience.

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Asthma-inducing particulate aside…if you could helicopter into the Great Wall (and not the Badaling portion 80km northwest of Beijing where all the tourist buses barf out passengers like ourselves), that would be the highlight. It’s a true marvel—over 6,000 km of actual wall remains (though archaeologists will champion the wall to be nearly 22,000km with all its branches. The great snake is built of brick, stone, branches, rice and possibly even human remains. On the day we were dumped off it was a shocking -10 C. Worming our way through all the selfie sticks was a feat of its own—another was remaining upright on the black ice and preventing a domino effect of taking out 100 people with a wipeout on the sketchy stairs.

*Parts I’m skipping over but places that we responsibly visited: Tiananmen Square (where student-led protests in 1989 ended in the death of several hundreds, possibly thousands.

The Forbidden City and Summer Palace. Fact: The Last Emperor is the only Hollywood film that has been granted access to the City. It’s also the first film I remember that had an intermission at the theatre. The Imperial Palace consists of over 9,900 rooms. Two only seemed to be open and it was unbearably cold, windswept and not a highlight due to frozen _______(insert any body part here).

Oh, and the panda sanctuary in Chongqing which ended up being a zoo–but, if we had to be zoo animals, this would be the one we would choose. It’s lovely, in zoo-speak. But, being on a group tour meant we had to rush to our grandma-hour 4pm dinner and only had 20 minutes to see the pandas.

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*Other parts glossed over: an agonizing stop for far too long at the pearl factory AND jade factory despite our guide’s unbridled enthusiasm: “And now we stop for two hours and help the Chinese economy!”

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Fast forward to the Yangtze (and if you could, hop back in that helicopter and skip the dreary endless apartment-stacked skyline of Beijing. It’s like a never-ending Scarborough. Laundry flaps off every balcony like prayer flags. Mopeds with entire families squeezed in like club sandwiches putt along.) Finally, the glut of housing gives way to some green—sycamores! Gingko and camphor trees! Lotus fields! Chinese line dancers (yes, there is such a thing—and they do it in broad daylight in the parks) and legions of Tai Chi ambassadors jockey for green space, most wearing face masks and parkas.

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The Yangtze is the third largest river in the world. China sunk $45B US into the Three Gorges Project. Of that price tag, 45% was funneled into relocation efforts for the 1.3 million ‘migrants’ whose villages are now submerged. It seems privileged and snotty to float over the lives and ancestry of so many. The relics are witnessed in the hanging tombs—wooden coffins that are suspended high in the crevasses of the gorges. Few remain, and as the river opens up from the dam to the main channel, the industrial marine highway creates exhibit #35 for Chinese juxtapositions.

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We had reveled in a full day of hot November sun, lounging on the upper deck of the river boat, necks craned back as we passed through the verdant gorges. All was right with the world. We were floating through a postcard and thinking, “wish you were here.”

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But on the very next day—we wished we weren’t there. We couldn’t even step outside. The sulphur was in choking amounts. Steamers and barges (over 200 of them) queued up with coal, sulphur and hundreds of shiny new white cars. Smoke stacks lining the river burped up effluent. Nuclear reactors sent their plumes skyward too. It was gross. And then? Oddly, a woman standing on the banks in a long ivory wool coat, waving slowly, her arm extended above her head. As though to warn about sharks in the water. She sang gospel into a microphone, with a little amp at her side. Waving and singing to no particular audience.

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We found a few markets to walk through (childhood flashback of always wanting to go poke the shrink-wrapped cow tongue’s at Calbecks’ grocery store). Skinned ducks, live eels, pig knuckles, still-flipping fish, pickled chicken’s feet and all sorts of organs were on gruesome display. On the flip side, massive melons and neatly lined up greens and spices were presented like fine art.

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Fast forward to the high speed train to Shanghai (again, insert endless landscape of utilitarian high rise apartments and condos). And by high speed, we’re talking upwards of 250km/hour. The train is efficient and the menu is a curious one. We were torn between “smell strictosidine” (they were out of this anyway), drunk fish, grinding corn beverage, crispy duck wing root, squid silk and “alcoholic peanuts.” Massive solar fields were a blur as we whizzed through the rural areas, rice paddies, haphazard graveyards and bony-backed cattle.

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I think this is where Kim and I designed our own group tour and left the group. We navigated the spaghetti lines of the Shanghai metro system as our group hotel was an hour from the action, Nanjing Road, the bund and all the glittery fracas. It would be like booking a room in Ajax, thinking you were going to be ‘close’ to Toronto. (Though the hotel did have a heated toilet seat and a TV screen embedded in the bathroom mirror).

We supported the fake market industry (North Face jackets! Superdry! Salomon shoes! Mammut!) until we couldn’t handle the aggression. “LADY! WATCHES! Hello! Belts! LADY! COME. BUY JACKET.” Many vendors would latch on with python grips and pull you into their stores. Simply looking at a hoodie you’d hear, “WHAT SIZE? HOW MUCH?” Walking away was like leaving a 10-year relationship. “Why you leave? Come on special friend. Special price!”

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We happened upon a German ice bar (over 120 kinds of vodka and a -3C room to drink them in. Parka provided.) called Kafer but opted for a Shangri La hotel happy hour.

It was a civilized moment of calm after the hyper retail gong show of the AP Market. We sat in the Treasury Room eating salty mixed nuts, snootily drinking Australian craft beer, listening to David Bowie while watching snooker. Juxtapositions in Shanghai, yes.

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We pass trees with i.v. bags. In a place that pumps out the pollutants to the demise of the human population, trees get loving attention to help conquer disease processes. We make our way to Cloud 9, the tallest bar in the world with a sky-high view and equally sky-high prices.

 

I get the expat love affair with Shanghai. It’s cosmo. It’s metro. All the big hotel chains are there and you can smoke cigars and drink cognac at the Fairmont Peace Hotel as though you are in Chicago. Shanghai is touted to be “the Chicago of the Orient” with a river winding along the Bund and all the Mink Mile stores. It’s immaculate. It’s pedestrian-centric. Kim felt like we’d walked onto a Jetsons set at dusk.

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The entire city pulsates and vibrates. The skyline dances with neon. Outdoor escalators whisk starry-eyed couples to pedestrian causeways, KFC, Dairy Queen, Subway and the like.

China. It’s backwards. Its forwards. We endured it with Phuket dangling like a GMO-enhanced carrot at the end. But that’s another blog.

dscf6142Lesson learned: When we say “never” (and despite other people saying “never say never”), we now mean it. So, this means: We will never go on a cruise, go to China (again), Cuba (again), Vegas, India or Scarborough for that matter. Also, we will never do group travel again.

 

 

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Picking up in Des Moines, Iowa…a 1984 Airstream, that is.

My assignment is late. I could say the dog ate my homework, because that’s very plausible around here. Fingers could be pointed in several directions as we are currently living with six dogs who are interested in eating everything from marshmallows to corn-on-the-cob. And, probably homework.

What We Did On Our Summer Vacation is drive the equivalent of across Canada and back in mileage. Instead, we drove to and fro to Prince Edward County looking for a house or a patch of land that never materialized. So, we widened our radius, and though we came closer to our ideals, we were even further from where we started. Perth, Jasper, South Frontenac, Westport, Sharbot Lake. Crotch Lake, Green Lake, Black Lake, Otty Lake, Mississippi River, Elbow Lake.

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In the middle of August we pulled out the driveway of our 155-year-old stone cottage one last time. The Rogue was packed to the gills with the three awkward but happy plants, pantry leftovers, camping gear, stuff to take to China in November, a handful of books I had to review for the Vancouver Sun, Kim’s golf clubs and my favourite high tops.

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In the days before we moved we were stuffing everything else into a storage pod that now sits in Ayr. We drank champagne on a daily basis and ate a lot of strange combinations, trying to unload our fridge of condiments.

We went to a funeral, a wedding, Prince Edward County, Walkerton and Uxbridge all in the same week. And packed and moved and landed at our friends’ farm weary but liberated. Untethered. We were free to a good home and they figured with six dogs, five cats, nine horses, a pig, 30-odd chickens and two bee hives—two more in the mix wouldn’t rock the boat. And, it is like being on a boat here. In particular, Noah’s Ark.

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Anyway, life has shifted from stuffy shifts at the steel mill and the spa to becoming instant 4-H members, chicken coop painters and chief honey and rum cocktail makers. Perks: the resident bees kicked off their inaugural season by producing nearly 18-liters of spun gold and we get to do quality control of their Just Hitched Honey Co. We live in a fancy barn with wi-fi and Netflix and have more bonfires than the average caveman.

So, despite our carsickness from extreme real estating, we volunteered (or invited ourselves I think) to join one of Caberneigh Farm’s owners, PJ, on a road trip to Des Moines (Yes, we had to look it up to, and only recently have I been able to pronounce it correctly), Iowa to retrieve an Airstream that her late brother-in-law willed to her. PJ’s sisters, Christine and Colleen were already on the road days before us, hitting every national park and fall fair and kettle corn stand between California (their start point) and Des Moines.

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In addition to earning her 4-H badge in feeding beet pulp to the horses and learning how to wrangle truly free range chickens, Kim had a crash (with no crash) course on Airstream parking and manoeuvering. However, her practice Airstream was PJ and Nicole’s cutesy 19-foot Bambi model (Bambi is Barbie-sized). We (Kim and PJ—I was the designated backseat driver and snack procurer) would be towing a 28-foot 1984 Sovereign Airstream back to Canada. In, like four days. PJ had work commitments so the 2,218 mile road trip would be a tasseled corn field blur.

But, of course we would make time for the odd American diner or two. The kind where road construction crews file in still wearing their neon vests first and eat pie with ice cream BEFORE they order lunch. Kim and I were quickly introduced to Americana courtesy of PJ, a Cali-bred expat. “What’s a wet burrito?” Basically a burrito buried in cheese sauce. (*need fork and knife). “What’s a patty melt?” Hamburger patty loaded with melted cheese and onions and sandwich-fied between slices of rye bread of all things.

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At our first stop at Perry’s Village Corners in Lansing Michigan we had onion rings so greasy-good we didn’t need to apply lip balm for the rest of the day.

Nine hours after roaring out the farm driveway in Uxbridge in the Dodge Ram we left the keys with the valet driver and enveloped ourselves in the posh surrounds of the Renaissance Blackstone Hotel on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. (EXTREME highlight: the bowls of hickory-smoked bacon in the VIP lounge at breakfast. Now we know why half the guests were padding their pockets with it).

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The air was as thick as breathing cotton candy as storm clouds sat behind the Tribune building, Gotham City-style. This is how you do Chicago in sub-12 hours.

  1. Be sure to walk the perimeter of the Tribune and check out all the rocks that have been embedded in the walls from Antarctica to atolls in the Philippines.dscf5353
  2. Go to Howell’s and Hood’s. Drink indie beers (they have over 100 drafts and crafts like Colorado’s silky amber Sawtooth. Order the hot pretzel bites dusted in cheese powder and served with a dangerous beer dip. They are the equivalent of Adult Timbits. The resto was named after the architects who won the 1920s ‘best office building’ design competition. You’ll see why, and you’ll also see why you’re happier to be drinking Sawtooths instead of working.dscf5357
  3. Follow the crowds to see the city’s calling card at Millennium Park. The “Cloud’s Gate” silver jellybean is an Instagram magnet. If you have more than 100 Facebook friends, there’s a solid chance that you’ve seen someone’s selfie cartwheel in front of it. You can’t help but take over a dozen pics here. It’s like the Grand Canyon of city photo ops.dscf5340dscf5345
  4. Go marvel at the Harold Washington Library (named for the city’s first African-American mayor) on 400 South State Street, not too far of a stray from the Magnificent Mile. If you have time, you can scan and 3D print yourself. The imposing brick building is presided over by angels and menacing owls. Look up and out!
  5. PJ would insist that you go to Garrett Popcorn Shop. It’s the Chicago mix (sharp cheddar and molasses-swirled caramel popcorn) that leaves the uninitiated in a trance. Everyone glazes over upon entry, sucking in the sweet, buttery-infused air. We left with a 3.5 pound bucket of the coveted corn for PJ’s sisters, and take-home for Nicole.
  6. Visit any downtown convenience store. America is light years beyond Canada in the snack department. We’re talking birthday cake ring donuts, cherry-flavoured turkey jerky, Payday and Heath bars (previously only witnessed on The Price is Right where contestants had to guess the price of random grocery items). They have suckers called Dum-Dums that come in flavours like banana split, s’mores and root beer). Whoppers (malt balls) are still a big thing and speaking of Whoppers, Burger King is also marketing Whopperitos (a burger-burrito marriage).
  7. Go to Billy Goat’s Tavern for a pint. It’s the parking lot tavern made famous by Saturday Night Live (that “cheezborger no cheese” skit). Here you can order three pints for $10.25. That’s the price of one beer at Howells and Hoods. The secret beer cafeteria is day-glo and still serves up liver and onions or steak and eggs for locked in ‘70s prices.dscf5379
  8. It’s a hot topic—Chicago loves their deep dish but we are thin crusters and were politely directed to Bar Toma by the Renaissance hotel’s “Navigator” (concierge). It’s a tourist draw but for good reason. As a total abomination of traditional Chicago-style pizza we had prosciutto and fig thin crust with Patio Crusher wheat beer. Take that. But, we would go back and work our way through the shortlist of local faves: Giordano’s, Gino’s East and Connie’s Pizza.
  9. Drive past Wrigley Field (despite construction). Home of the Chicago Cubs it was built in 1914 and is as classic Americana as pancake houses, Dunkin’ Donuts, Red Roof Inns, Cracker Barrels and Bob Evans.dscf5405

Chicago to Des Moines

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After sleeping like rockstars at the Renaissance, we had to get back to the task at hand. Tally ho to Iowa. Down the Ronald Reagan Memorial Highway to Indiana. Past the 1-844.getsnip billboards for no-snip vasectomies. Or, “If you die tonite will it be Heaven or Hell? Dial 1-888-the-TRUTH.

It was corn for the next 600 miles. Field of Dreams was filmed here for a reason. We only stopped to gas up and look at the shelves and shelves of pork rinds, jalapeno-infused beer, 7 layer-dip Combos (those delicious baby pretzel-stuffed things) and 30-packs of Old Milwaukee  for $13 (though Kim is still suspicious of her deal on beer. For 43 cents a can, could it really be real beer or near beer?). For the same $13 you could buy an ENTIRE sheet of Rice Krispie squares.

We also made time to stop at Trader Joe’s as I see a steady stream from friends in Nashville and California who brag about it. It’s a gourmand grocery store—like Whole Foods, but, smaller, with carefully curated good things. For example: peanut butter and jelly YOGURT. They sell apple and chardonnay sausage. Moose Drool beer. Specula Cookie Butter (like peanut butter, but crushed and whipped ginger specula cookies instead).

We crossed the Mississippi River (which I can spell properly thanks to a recess rope-skipping song I think) and somewhere between there and the Hilton we ruptured the oil line to the turbo booster and were bleeding oil. (Crisis averted and semi-resolved at Firestone, but, the truck stayed in the bay overnight and we nervously contemplated how we might tow the Airstream back without a truck).

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The Airstream exchange between the sisters was emotional and a little bit magic. The Airstream that Christine and Kenny had pulled around North America since 1984 would keep on spinning its wheels in new directions. Starting with us, back to Uxbridge. Back through the Bridges of Madison County. The Fields of Dreams. Homeland of Cloris Leachman and John Wayne. The state where you can find brownie batter milkshakes and hot pickles in a bag. And elementary schools that boast “drug-free school zone.” I should hope so.

Now, with 28 feet behind us, there were no random stops. We were long-haul truckers. We had to eat at places like Thirsty on 80 Grub and Pub in West Branch, Iowa, because they had 50 feet for us to park. It’s the kind of grub and pub with day drinkers, darts and deep fried everything (corn dogs, chicken fingers and frozen pizzas). They curiously also offered crab Rangoon, whatever that is.

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Through Plain View and Normal we went. Past Starved Rock National Park, across Skunk River. Past the World’s Largest Truck Stop on the I-80. We were following the eyelash of the storm through Indiana as wicked apocalyptic clouds swirled and whorled.

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After pulling off in a dodgy neighbourhood thanks to the Wayz app where souped-up cars with spiked rims and giant spoilers cruised. We found amazing Baracoa burritos (not wet) at Chilangos and hoped that we would return to find the Airstream still parked there—not fashioned into a dozen spoilers for whatever mafia ruled the roost.

We gassed up in Ronald Reagan’s birthplace (much to PJ’s chagrin) and kept laser-like focus on our only destination: Indiana Dunes State Park. It rained CNN special-weather-report announcement amounts. And, I would later learn (thanks to my mother, aspiring CNN meteorologist) that tornadoes were ripping through the area.

Arriving in 100% darkness (perfect conditions to back-up the 28-foot Airstream for the first time, into a narrow campground slot), Kim seamlessly slid it in like a seasoned camper. PJ apologized to the entire campsite for the idling diesel truck. I begged nearby campers for rations of firewood as the camp store was closed.

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When we finally had set up base camp (complete with roaring, borrowed fire), we laughed at our grand entrance to the state park. The park warden asked how we were. PJ admitted to being nervous—after all, it would be our first time backing the Airstream up. The warden actually said, “Do you have a man in there to help you?”

PJ calmly and confidently replied, “No, but I have two very capable women with me.”

And, when we finally sat down with glasses of Scotch (Kenny’s favourite brand), we toasted him and committed to always chasing adventure. We planned to come back to the Indiana State Dunes Park one day, because we didn’t see the dunes or much of anything beyond our bonfire pit. But sometimes it’s not about what you see, it’s what you do. Or didn’t plan to do. And how you feel. And, we felt pretty cool cruising across the border with our California Dreamin’ Airstream.

 

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China? Us? What? The Fortune Cookie didn’t mention that.

As Kim will readily attest, it’s dangerous leaving me idle with a nearby laptop on a snow-pounded day. First, as per routine, I will scour the real estate listings in Prince Edward County and surrounds like a public health nurse armed with a nit comb. In the event of a search with no immediate house crushes, I default to enticing emails promising seat sales and last minute escapes.

I always say never say never—but, Kim and I had already said, in bold and fine print, that we’d never go to Vegas, India or China. So, I’m full of blog baloney. I’d like to retract the last crossed off destination and cheerlead it for a few reasons.

The deal was too good not to go. The clincher was the add-on flight and seven nights at a beachfront Le Meridien property in Phuket for $599 each. A hotel AND a flight for $599? The only place you can do that is Sudbury (no offence, Sudbury).

So, because I couldn’t find a house for us to buy in the County, I found a three week trip to China and Thailand instead. We were anti-China for obvious reasons: pollution, a bazillion people and that niggling exotic animal trade and aphrodisiac thing that is decimating rhino, dolphin, tiger (insert any animal) populations. Oh, and the hawking and spitting at every turn. I’ve skidded on a few globs on Spadina’s sidewalks in my urban past.

But, on the flip side: The Yangtze River. Oh yeah, we said we’d never go on a cruise either. But, but, but…this is a river cruise, just 140 cabins, not a floating small city with a 18-hole golf course, IMAX movie theatre, rock climbing wall, waterslides and casino aboard.

Ironically, I had just researched the most enticing bits of China for an article on 10 luxury trips of a lifetime for Grand magazine (on newsstands now!). I knew zilch about China except the sneering-with-disapproval above smog-smacked opinions. As I read about the must-dos of Beijing alone, I felt a slight tug of responsibility. The marvel of the Great Wall seemed like something every human should see.

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China promised a solid dose of the unfamiliar, cuisine, dynasty lore, neon cities and emerald landscapes. Hell, the Great Wall can be seen from outer space (which makes me wonder—what’s faster? Space shuttle or 15 hour direct flight from Toronto?). The 20,000 km snaking wonder of manmade toil and ambition can be accessed from many points. The most visited entry is Badaling, which was the first part of the wall to open to tourists in 1957. Thatcher, Gorbachev, Queen Elizabeth left their mark here. Recently renovated, Mutianyu is easily accessible from Beijing and appeals to families with a cable car, chairlift and even a toboggan ride. No, that’s not a typo. Tobogganing. At the Great Wall.

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The Forbidden City, protected by a 52m moat around the heart of Beijing is where China’s largest collection of ancient buildings are found. Known as the Palace Museum, previous uninvited visitors were executed (now you can safely pay $9-13 entry). The Chinese Imperial Palace from the Ming Dynasty houses 5,000 years and 8,700 rooms of heritage: marble bridges, a calligraphy gallery, bronze elephant statues and classical gardens.

My mother is already researching these things in tandem. It’s probably the first time she’s ever said, “I want to come too!” when I told her we had booked China. Her excitement over the river cruise to Gorge Wu and Qutang and the panda sanctuary does not compare to her held-breath and knuckle-whitening as witnessed when I announced we were going to Uganda or Zanzibar or the Congo or Kenya.

“They have any bugs there?” was my dad’s concern. My parents should work for WHO with their memorized mapping of the Zika outbreak and dengue scares. My mom later emailed, “What do they think of gays there? Never mind, I probably don’t want to know.”

 

sex livesI’ve been reading J. Maarten Troost’s Lost on Planet China as preliminary research. I’ve read his other two brilliant travel memoirs, Getting Stoned With Savages and The Sex Lives of Cannibals. This guy has lived on remote atolls in the South Pacific. He’s no Accidental Tourist a la William Hurt. But, his expose of China at ground zero and the lung-collapsing pollution has left me panting a little.

What terrifies me most is probably the karaoke. Other things—like the government’s attempt to overcome increased rates of childhood obesity with a mandate that kids learn to waltz also makes me quiver. A place that loves to waltz and karaoke—that’s pretty much my nightmare in black and white.

planet chinaCourtesy of Troost I’ve also learned:

  1. The only four-legged thing they don’t eat in China is a table.
  2. “Death Vans” are the solution to messy firing squads. The mobile execution trucks visit jails, perform injections as necessary and then harvest viable organs for transplants.
  3. The swastika symbol is visible everywhere–but it is the Buddhist symbol for love and peace.
  4. China has the world’s highest suicide rate among women–and they do so by swallowing pesticides.
  5. It’s illegal to carry a photo of the Dalai Lama in Tibet.
  6. To corner the market on grain export, Mao ordered the death of every sparrow in China (because they ate grain seeds). He didn’t predict the locust plague and starvation that would follow.
  7. You can buy watermelons the size of oranges.
  8. At the Yuyuan market (which requires a flashlight to visit), one can find tiger paws, mammoth tusks and monkey skeletons
  9. A typical menu might offer fried swan, boiled frog in radish soup and stewed pig lung
  10. Driving in China is “one long cardiac event.”

In China we will also be privy to the cardiac event that is the high speed train from Wuhan to Shanghai (topping out at some 330km per hour). We can experience reverse vertigo at the Grand Hyatt Shanghai in the Bund while taking in the optical roller coaster of the 30 storey atrium. Maybe have a cocktail at the Fairmont Peace Hotel where Charlie Chaplin used to hang.

Maybe we’ll see the rare-as-a-unicorn Baiji Yangtze river dolphin. Prior to the construction of the behemoth Three Gorges Dam, the river was just a few feet deep. It’s now a swollen vein with 450 feet depths. Shades of the Aswan Dam in Egypt cloud my mind. The mile long and 610 foot dam buried many villages and temples in its path in an underwater grave. The government has kindly reintroduced macaque monkeys to the region and trained them to beg for food from the tourists (I’m sure you’ve seen the images of the demanding troops, robbing starry-eyed visitors of their sunglasses and even flip flops). All to ensure visitors have a good time. Better yet—if the wonder of the limestone gorge isn’t impressive enough, there are acrobats in Hubei Province that ride MOTORCYCLES on wires suspended across the river. Acrobats jockey for attention as this is also the area where 2000-year-old wooden coffins are tucked among the rocky outcrops and caves. They were once a thousand feet above the river, but thanks to the damn dam, they are even closer. And, who doesn’t love a little Cirque de Soleil while passing through an ancient burial ground? Cue up Michael Jackson’s “Beat It!” on the karaoke machine.

It’s all so perplexing. Toboggan rides down the Great Wall. Acrobats in the Gorge. Prostitutes. Phone calls in the night offering special massage at the hotels. Hello Kitty! Hopefully cheap tiger balm. And, fried everything (insert: seahorse, scorpion, duck heads, flying lizards–http://www.goatsontheroad.com/7-seriously-strange-street-foods-in-china/).

Reading Lost on Planet China probably wasn’t the most fabulous introduction. However, we are expecting mass confusion, eye rolling, sky-high frustration and big gobs of spit but also, sheer wonder and startling scenery. Plus, this trip is for investigative purposes. China is actually hiring panda wranglers or “Panda Nannies” at the Giant Panda Protection and Research Centre in Ya’an. $35,000US to cuddle pandas and Instagram the cuteness!

Homework, continued…

The Last Emperor (I think was the first movie I went to that had an intermission! The 1987 flick is 2 hours and 43 minutes long). Based on the true story of Pu Yi, the last Emperor of Imperial China.

The Beach—because we will be in Phuket for a week, and Thailand is the setting of Alex Garland’s backpacker fantasy novel about finding nirvana and cheap banana pancakes

Up the Yangzte—troubling 2007 documentary about the impact of the Three Gorges Dam on rural China

Last Train Home—the human cost of China’s economic success

Kung Fu Panda—for obvious reasons. Po the overweight Panda works at his father’s noodle bar but dreams of being a kung fu warrior. Referencing this movie might help in the Panda Nanny job interview.

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The Rum Diaries Part 6: Las Galeras, Las Terrenas, Samana, Dominican Republic

There was a warm wash of relief when I read that even Pilar Guzman, Editor in Chief of Conde Nast Traveler spends “an unapologetically culture-free month on Fire Island every summer.” Defensively, the next line of her Editor’s Letter was, “we are rigorous about taking trips that teach,” and choosing destinations that mirror her kids school curriculum (hello Egypt and the Mesopotamia unit!). She also revealed that she and her husband “reserve the right to an adults-only, do-nothing-but-read-booze-sun-and-swim beach getaway once a year.”

Well, that’s what Kim and I did too. There was a surprisingly amount of flak from friends and family though (once we mapped out where the Samana peninsula was). “Dominican Republic? Really? Everyone goes there.”

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Everyone goes everywhere. Unless you go all Tom Hanks Castaway and accidentally bob yourself by raft into an atoll that no human has tread upon. (And I do have a delicious book all about that: Judith Schalansky’s Pocket Atlas of Remote Island: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will. It’s as dreamy as it gets. Most of the islands she spotlights are former leper colonies or suffered smallpox epidemics that wiped out the entire population. You can go to Chile’s Robinson Crusoe Island (pop: 633) or keep company with 120 million crabs during the rainy season on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean. That sounds about our speed.

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You see, we ruined ourselves with Zanzibar. The beaches were apocalyptically empty. The sun was searing and the ocean was a mesmerizing kaleidoscope of blues and greens. Finding a reasonable facsimile is challenging—and might not ever happen (though I just scribbled down the “Galapagos of Japan—Iromote and the Yaeyama Islands, after seeing just three glossy photos). However, sometimes you just want a four hour flight versus nineteen. You want a long beach without spiky urchins underfoot. You want sunsets and rum shacks and no greater purpose than to just be. You don’t want to swallow anti-malarial pills that give you near-psychotic dreams every night. You want flights for two for a thousand bucks return and rooms for $65 a night.

We looked at Tobago (crappy flight connections through Trinidad and steep prices for lackluster seaside rentals). We looked at Turks. And then I looked at the Seychelles and Andaman Island (as I always do, by default). We considered the Azores and decided we couldn’t brave highs of 13 degrees in January, despite the killer deal. We wanted egg-frying-on-the-sidewalk hot.

Kim found Samana online one still Sunday morning and knew what the Dominican offered, having been to Punta Cana, Puerto Plata and Sosua years ago. In fact, she even won a bottle of rum at the hotel she was staying at for having the best tan.

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What we wanted, we got. Samana is a direct (4h 20min) flight from Toronto. A cruise ship sounds its horn at this port every few days—sounding our own internal horns to go further from the bloated crowds. A $100 taxi ride further. Unfortunately, the transit system is still operating on 1950’s banana farm ideals. Locals actively pack into the backs of the gua-gua’s (old Nissan and Mitsubishi pick-up beaters with wood plank seating) that stop every 100 m or so. We’ve subjected ourselves to the local way before—and decided our public transit experiences in Uganda alone, justified ponying up for a proper taxi to Las Galeras in the north.

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Lonely Planet described Las Galeras as an expat haven and a solid base camp for indie travellers. French women burned along the downtown strip on ATVs with baguettes (they did!). Here, we could find “morir sonado”—a smoothie of OJ, milk, sugar and crushed ice that translates heavenly as “to die dreaming.”

Dreaming started early when we asked our driver about stopping for beer. We were sticky and parched in our just-left-winter-in-Canada jeans and fleece. He nodded and in less than five minutes he slowed in front of a house with a thatched roof with a girl skipping rope and dizzy chickens pecking out front. He honked his horn in a special pattern and a sinewy teen emerged. Our driver bellowed in Spanish and we suddenly found ourselves holding glacier cold one liter bottles of Presidente.

The ride was stomach-lurching hilly, through a surprisingly verdant swath of palms, jungle tangles and rice paddy fields. I knew that this trip would not be the safari thrill of Uganda. The Dominican has two mammals—rats and bats, though I kept my eyes trained on the canopies, fully expecting monkeys and sloths.

At Costa Las Ballenas we were quickly charmed by new expat Italian owners, Vincenzo and chef Gilda. They had taken possession of the semi-tired sea front property in December and had a long list of to-do’s. Luckily, Kim and I have stayed in rooms with no toilet seats, Donald Duck shower curtains and taxidermied rabbits wearing clothes. We’re forgiving, even when the room is strawberry yogurt pink and the toilet is as private as Facebook. We were shocked to find a flat screen TV (espanol-only, though I was hoping Kim would be able to find the world junior hockey coverage), SCENTED toilet paper and beach bar pizza slabs for 100 pesos (2 bucks).

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(*Of all the pictures we would later show friends, the door-less toilet (where you could see the stars at night and sun tan at certain points in the day) was the shocker.)

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We investigated our surrounds, making our way into ‘town’ which was the usual source of Carib comedy with a motoconcho (motorbike) and a cantering horse being pulled behind. Diesel-burping vehicles that looked homemade overtaking shiny Land Rovers. We quickly found $3 bottles of rum, corn flakes (gluten-free even, though we weren’t being picky), plantain chips and yogurt. The veg section was a sorry site of wilting broccoli, depressed tomatoes and scrubby onions. We had missed the mango and avo season, but there was no fruit. Not a banana. Not a pina. The shelves of the four supermercados we went into were full of squeeze dressings, sardines, wieners in a can, baseball-bat baguettes and rock candies that guaranteed dental work.

But, back to the beach (we could survive on rum and corn flakes and pizza slabs). It was a Simpsons blue sky, every day. There were the token geckos, electric tree frogs at night and forty annoying Russians threatening to break the sound barrier with their music. They started drinking beer at breakfast…at 8am. Or, maybe they never stopped.

Playa Bonita reminded us of The Beach. We schlepped to a pool-like part of the sea where few bothered to walk to. Locals fried up langostina and pescado at $1000 pesos ($20US) for a feed for two. Beers included.

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We had drowsy days of reading, napping and ambling along the boardwalk, gushing the manicured AND pedicured lawns and sweet real estate. At night, we practiced amateur mixology with mango nectar, limon frappe and island punch sodas that we had bought in town.

The beachy perks of Las Galeras are found in the skyline. There are no high rises. There are no chain hotels. There are no jet skis or pesky beach vendors hounding to braid your hair or to buy necklaces made out of shells and fake shark teeth. There was a solo guitarist and someone selling braided palm frond hats but that was it.

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I loved watching the spear fisherman bring their bounty to shore. Around four o’clock they’d come in, a rainbow of scales suspended on rope, rays, jelly octopi and rock lobsters by the bucket. Kim loved that she could order spag bol at the nearby slick Atlantis Hotel. She’s ordered it everywhere in the world, and every day in Italy—but it was here, in Las Galeras that she found the best spaghetti Bolognese, ever.

Onward: Las Terrenas

The sleepy fishing village an hour and a half from Las Galeras (another $100US ear-popper, barf-bag inducing cab ride. Don’t remind us of the crappy Canadian dollar exchange) slipped us through new terrain. Men were clustered around tables playing dominos, women sat fanning themselves, bouncing coffee-skinned babies. Loudspeakers rigged on the back of trucks blared that wormy cabbages and bruised papayas were for sale. Everywhere, music thumped. Out of houses, makeshift bars, parked vehicles. Phones. Keeping up with the Joneses in the Dominican means funneling all your money into speakers.

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At El Sol Azul, a Swiss-owned B&B (“Zimmer und Fruhstuck”), we found a good dose of hospitality, banana rum jam, the freshest smelling towels and a property that was like waking up inside a botanical garden magazine spread. We had a jackfruit tree outside our door, crown of thorns, lime trees, jasmine—so many fragrant blooms. The owners, Esther and Pierre, have been in the business for 10 years and it’s evident. It was $65 CAD a night here too—which included breakfast. Cocoa puffs, pina colada yogurt, fresh cheese, dulce de leche, passionfruit juice, eggs any style with avo, tomato and a pinwheel of her homemade jams: guava, starfruit, kumquat, mango and the banana rum version which was like liquid banana bread in a jar. Divine.

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The bed was so firm we could have played ping pong off the surface, but, the rooms were kitted out with everything from mosquito coils to a cool loft space and bean bag zen zone. Better yet? Two nonchalant cats and an affectionate lab make their rounds.

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The guests were all European—Germans, French, Czech. It was rare to hear English being spoken in Las Galeras. Ironically, early in the trip I had been asked if I knew Spanish. I had taken a college course back in 1993, and really, could only remember “el gato es negro.” The cat is black. As long as I saw black cats, I was fine. And we did. Many gato negros and, Gato Negro wine. In a tiny store with a face-punch assault of scented toilet paper for sale, we actually haggled over wine prices. Certain it was going to be effervescent, we walked away with a $10 US bottle of Gato Negro from the “humidor” as Kim called it. The wine ‘cellar’ was hotter than most saunas that I’ve been in.

The supermercados of Las Galeras were of the same state—finding things to eat and picnic with was a struggle. We had packed tins of tuna and a cartel of trail mix from Canada, but, it was getting difficult to find substance beyond hunks of tasteless or too-briny cheese, “salami” (that was more of the bologna persuasion), drinking boxes of chocolate milk (dreamy—it tasted exactly like melted chocolate ice cream) and white buns that crumbled when you looked at them. God bless preservatives. Some stores had freezers stocked with chicken feet, and there was always a side of beef hanging somewhere.

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We tried a German sandwich shop which ended up being a flat Wonderbread assembly of red onion, the bologna meat, murder-scene amounts of ketchup and mayo. To-go paninis at the French-owned Las Marseillaise became our beach staple.

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Our days were all about finding the next great pocket of beach. This sometimes led to thorny, scratchy scrambles over coral, barbed wire, garbage dumps and cow patties but (thank god love conquers all)…a Brit told us about a “donkey path” to Colorado beach, a secret spot that only the ambitious found. Her donkey path was akin to a drug mule path. When we arrived at the beach, thrashed and wobbly from the terrain, it was in shade and covered in a Stephen King amount of red aphids. Back to our base camp: el Playita.

 

Despite the pep talks about Rincon being one of the best beaches in Dominican, we skipped it. The $20US (each) boat ride over Perfect Storm ocean swells was not enticing. We could see Rincon from our Playita, and we predicted the same. Unfortunately, El Nino and company have eroded the beaches on the northern peninsula at a startling rate. Leaning palms and a short shore are becoming the norm.

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We found bizarre pizza combos at Bar Roma, the Italian-owned joint ‘downtown.’ The open seating allowed for unobstructed viewing of the motoconchos pulling wheelies up and down the main road. A pizza with a one litre beer was $20US and came loaded with ham laid like sod, fried egg, a slice of radish and one anchovy. On our last night we found the better joint—El Pescador. Their Toscane pizza with generous amounts of chicken, tomato and onion with hell-hot sauce made our coveted best-pizzas-we’ve-eaten-in-the-world list.

Most nights involved an eye-rolling amount of Adele, meringue and Menudo-esque music. A pool hall, supermarket, hair salon and bar ALL competed for air time with music at a level that actually made me wince. You need to inoculate yourself with serious amounts of rum or hot black cat red wine to sleep here. You know that expression? Sound asleep? Kim was sound awake every night. I think I have to take her to Fogo Island in Newfoundland next. Hotel rooms here come with a switch for white noise because it’s uncomfortably too quiet for some.

If you are seriously sketching out plans to visit Las Terrenas, this is what you need to do:

Spend a poolside afternoon at Villas Serena. The beers are the most expensive on the island, but they come with an addictive bar snack: red-skinned peanuts and baked coconut inundated with garlic salt, bbq spice and coarse pepper.

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Learn German. Or, bring a lot of English books. Kim and I went on a scavenger hunt to a half dozen hotels after we ripped through our paperback supply (we thought six would cover us for two weeks). All the shelves of traders are German or Dutch, so pack your Rosetta Stone. Special thanks to that generous woman from the Muskokas who handed me her copy of ex-skateboarder Michael Christie’s If I Fall, If I Die. “If you have kids you never have to worry about running out of books on vacation,” she suggested.

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Beware of the Dominican tattoo. We counted nine raw and bandaged raspberries. The ‘tattoo’ is the characteristic right leg burn mark from the exhaust of the motorbike taxis.

Ear Plugs. Though I find falling asleep to the sound of waves poetry, Kim described the waves like a “freight train” that ran all night.

Don’t buy duty free rum en route. It’s so cheap once you arrive. Instead, grab a bunch of golf-ball sized limes and find your favourite combo—Cuba Libre (with Coke) or Santo Libre (crushed limes with rum and ice).

Buy those homemade coconut cookies that look potentially good. They are softer than muffin tops.

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GO to El Maguey on the beach. It’s a haphazard open sky art gallery/bar/resto. For $1,400 pesos ($30 US) we had four paralyzing Santo Libres, a mamajuana shot (the mysterious aphrodisiac blend of red wine, honey, rum, herbs, twigs), papagayo (neon blue fish), 80s style salad (iceberg, tomato, white vinegar) and thick 100% veg oil fries. Under a fingernail moon and a tablecloth of stars with a beach dog at our feet, non-descript Spanish rock at a purr and the ‘freight train’ waves, this was a perfect night.

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The Best Places we Slept in 2015

As I type this, I am on red hot poker alert for sounding like a gloating schmuck. One doesn’t have to read too many headlines to be aware of the immense life-joy Syrians are finding in a one-way ticket to Canada. And here I am bragging about all the places we slept around the world this year. However, it is with gratitude that we have the means, and with greater thanks to the powers that be that we are Canadians and synonymous with poutine, igloos, nice beer, plaid of all sorts and moose antlers.

So, in no particular order, these were our resounding favourites for 2015, the places that still stir us in the night and tumble into conversation as quickly as commas and Kardashians.

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La Sirena, Palomino, Colombia

$645 CAD for 7 nights

Comes with very cute cat, a bat show and the best French Toast, possibly ever.

Three words: open-sky showers. You can’t beat them—even if they are lukewarm. Palomino was a neat pocket of surfer survivalists. Budget backpackers love Palomino for the cheap beer, cheap tins of tuna, big surf and $4 a night hammocks to sleep in (though many went even thriftier and simply camped en plein air on the beach without issue).

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We don’t sleep in hammocks anymore, and ponied up a few more dollars to sleep in a seaside casita at La Sirena Eco Lodge. The on-site veg resto serves up thick slabs of fruit-studded French toast, lentil burgs, tangy red cabbage slaw and baseball bat-sized burritos nearly made vegetarians of us. There was seaside yoga every day and a dedicated following—we watched over the rim of our wine glass. That counts, right?

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Best? Every night at dusk we’d secure our front of house seats, straining to finish a chapter in the equatorial light and finally close our books for the bat show. At precisely 5:55pm, the bats would swiftly appear, in quick black blurs as the staff lit tiki torches along the beach. When you stay several nights in one place, it’s cool to pick up on the rhythm and the clock of the natural world.

El Dorado Bird Reservo, Minca, Colombia

$230 CAD includes crappy dinner and crappier breakfast, but…how about 100 hummingbirds an hour?

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This was my birthday gift, and swanky to me comes in different forms. For example, like sleeping at 1,700m, far above the coffee plantations and literally in the clouds. Perched above the forest canopy, we had a bird’s eye view of the bird’s eyes. Lots of them. It was hummingbirdpalooza. Gobsmacked, Kim and I stood quite stunned as over fifty hummingbirds circled and buzzed around us at once.

The motorbike ride to the lodge ($75 return) was hair and heartbeat-raising, more akin to an involuntary Dakar rally over washed out bits of road, getting thwacked in the head with fernery and clacking teeth and tongue over potholes—but, wow.

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It was like sleeping in a treehouse, or a bird’s nest I suppose. I spent more time looking out binoculars than using my own eyes.

Best? After checking off endemic birds like crazed lifer birder-types in Tilleys (note: we do not wear Tilleys), we watched a group of Canadian herpetologists go bonkers over the moths and neon katydids attracted to the light of the lodge. These guys knew not only their birds and herps and ghost frogs and anole, but their lunas too–comparing geeked-out notes and trivia. It’s awesome to see people still get as excited about flora and fauna as the return of Star Wars and X-Files.

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Golden Villas, Noord, Aruba

$139/night (January to May)

Comes with Weber Grill, Netflix and Parakeet Migration

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We were beyond impressed with Golden Villas. The apartments are contemporary, spotless and kitted out with Hamilton Beach blenders, Cuisinart coffee makers, black-out blinds (for even the most notorious insomniac), a gorgeous limestone shower (with HOT water, a rarity with most island stays) and NETFLIX even. And there’s never a battle over outdoor lounge chairs!

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With just eight private villas surrounding the courtyard and pool, the experience is intimate and private. Goodbye obnoxious crowds at the all-inclusives and the thumpa thumpa of the disco and badgering to play volleyball or do morning pool aerobics. At Golden Villas, you can watch parakeets fly-by and spend most of your hours without seeing anyone else. It’s so quiet you feel as though you should whisper– most guests depart early in the morning and don’t return until after sunset.

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We took full advantage of the Weber barbecue that was available—(you can pick up groceries just 15-20 minutes away on foot at several Asian supermarkets or the big conglomerate–Super Foods where all the imported Dutch cheese lands by the tonne). Eagle Beach is a 30 minute walk from here–if you are staying for sunset, a headlamp or flashlight would be advised for the return walk. And the beach—not to complain, but the sand is SO white that you can barely read because of the glare. I know, when you’re biggest problem in life is the glare of white sand, SMACK!

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We stayed for a week and loved the sleepy location away from the Palm and Eagle beach madness (they call Aruba “Little Miami” for good reason—all the big hitters are here: Hooters, Senor Frogs, Cinnabon, TGIF, KFC, etc). The owners Richard and Belle are so lovely and helpful–and their young daughter, Juna, has an infectious laugh. We’d recommend Golden Villas to couples wanting a quieter self-catering option. Aruba requires deep pockets outside of the resorts—a pound of peel and eat prawns and two beers will set you back $50US. After staying in solar-powered beach huts in Colombia for three weeks, this was an indulgent spoil! *From the airport it is $25US flat rate.

Summer House at the Summer Garden, Argyle Shores, Prince Edward Island

Rates from $1,000/week (7-night minimum stay)

Includes a jar of honey, best-ever granola and a blitzkrieg of mosquitoes

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I love everything cottagey, right down to the half-filled in crosswords from previous guests, beat-up Scrabble board, sticky UNO cards, bowls of potato chips, astronomy and wildflower guides and Nancy Drew hardbacks. The Summer House had all the quintessential cottage DVDs too: Steel Magnolias and the Big Chill.

Gail and Joe, the vibrant cottage owners and WOOF hosts (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms), were just as groovy as it gets. In their 60s, we saw them perennially bent over in their gardens, in full mosquito swat gear. The mosquitoes were insane in June, but, we can’t blame them for that. The rains came down biblically that week and the decks of cards saw frequent shuffling. Kim’s parents were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, and our quiet group of six quickly escalated to sixty, slab cake and urns of coffee. I’d be breathing into a paper bag if I saw that many people in and out of my rental cottage!

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Best? We were welcomed with a jar of golden honey from Canoe Cove, PEI coffee beans and just-baked homemade granola (stolen in surreptitious handfuls). There was OJ and milk in the fridge, an invite to drop in for a glass of wine and an impromptu lesson on how to make chive flower vinegar.

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Rowdy ravens, rolling jade fields, a veil of fog, devil’s paintbrush in the ditches and serene runs along the cinnamon-sand shore made the Summer House an authentic Maritime escape.

Fronterra Farm Camp Brewery, Prince Edward County, Ontario

$235/night (2 night minimum)

Comes with King bed, just-laid chicken eggs and cilantro and sometimes Veuve.

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This is intelligent camping, people. Whether you die-hard urban or lacking the necessary camping kit, make life easy and dreamy by booking a night in the frontier-style tents at Fronterra. Pick up a bottle of your favourite varietal en route, some organic sausage and pluck greens from their mighty patch behind the farmhouse. Our guacamole with foraged cilantro never tasted so Mex cantina! In the morning, Jens and Inge might deliver some just-laid eggs to fry up in the cast iron griddle. After a night fire side, sticky with mozzie repellant, fear not. Prepare for the hottest shower in your life, with a leafy canopy and an indigo sky above you.

Sleeping at Fronterra makes you want to chop wood, read Farley Mowat and make beer. Thankfully, Jens is taking care of the beer part too. The twist on the Farm Camp is the Brewery—the hops have been lovingly sowed and the beer-making dream is fermenting! The couple have a beautiful vision, and the fact that they are allowing strangers and interlopers to share in on their dream is something to be exceedingly grateful for.

We ended up being their very first guests—I had been following their posts rabidly (the website alone is something to fawn over) and booked us pronto—not realizing we’d be the test subjects! Lucky for us we were treated to a long-coveted bottle of Veuve that they insisted on opening and drinking with us.

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For solitude, and camping that is a far cry from the crammed provincial parks (insert annoying car alarms, inflatable mattresses being blown up at 2am, car doors slamming, blaring music, etc. here). At Fronterra you’re buying into peace, inspiration, and a cheap way to rewire for a few days in the woods.

Ihamba Safari Lodge, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda

$139 US per night, including breakfast and coffee delivered to your doorstep

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When we first arrived at Ihamba Lakeside Safari Lodge I was worried that I made a mistake. I had noticed a 10% room discount on tripadvisor just before we left for Uganda. We decided to book when we arrived, as we hadn’t fully plotted our trip yet. The rate was supposed to be $139 US per night. When we saw the grandness of the lodge and the view of Lake George, I thought–“oh, no! It’s $139 PER PERSON PER NIGHT!” I fretted throughout our welcome session with Fred, especially when we were shown our very own private cottage! From the tripadvisor pictures, I thought the deal was for an interior room–this cottage had a balcony with lakeview and a slipper tub with a panoramic window for hippo watching AND a King bed. It was gorgeous. Royalty could stay here–and royal we were! I casually and slyly asked one of the staff about the price (in shillings) for our entire stay so I could do quick math without seeming like a fretting cheapskate. All this, for indeed $139 a nite, including breakfast. We immediately went to the pool area, which we had completely to ourselves. Philomen kept us hydrated with a steady flow of Tusker–we turned the lounge chairs towards the lake and wondered what kind of dream we had just woken up in.

All the staff were over-the-top professional, catering to all our needs and requests (ice cubes, arranging a vehicle for a game drive, bird book lending while on safari, bowls and cutlery to make guacamole from avocadoes we’d bought nearby) we even asked if the chef could make an eggplant pizza one night as we were looking for lighter fare than the three course option that was available). No problem. Dinners ($25,000 shillings for entrees) were a rotating menu (not a buffet) of decadent choices–eggplant curries, grilled tilapia–and the best beef samosas. Breakfast came with a fruit plate, a bodum of coffee and your choice of eggs, pancakes, bacon, sausage, baked beans, stewed tomatoes. Each night after dinner we would fill out an request form with a time for breakfast. Best? You can opt for a wake-up call with coffee delivery to your room! Now that’s living! (No extra charge).

At night, John, the security guard and resident hippo enthusiast would greet us for an escort with lanterns–asking if we wanted to go look at the hippos closer. They graze on the grass right by the cottages, and you will fall to sleep with sounds of them at your feet–amazing!

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The balcony of the cottage makes for great birdwatching—lapwings, wagtails, go away birds, bishop birds, kingfishers, bats…and the sunrise on Lake George, stunning! We watched a few afternoon storms roll in too! You’ll also see all the fisherman as they head out in their wooden canoes from the local village.

The location of the lodge is technically within Queen Elizabeth National Park, but there is some clause on the property that creates an exception for the hotel. This means you DON’T have to pay the $40US per person park fee per night. The lodge can arrange a driver/guide and safari vehicle for you if you are not travelling with a guided group (like us). It was $140US to hire John (a former QENP guide–patient, experienced and comical)–not including park entry ($80US for two for a 24 hour period, time-stamped).

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If you are looking for serenity, seclusion, a stunning lake view, and a hotel without the park fees, Ihamba is it. The bonus is having a pool, a quiet road to walk on in the mornings if you want to check out the birds or run), hippos at night and lovely staff. And, kudos and karma to the hotel owner for allowing children from the local community use of the pool on Sundays–what a treat for them.

Lakeside Lodge, Jinja, Uganda

$255 US a night, full board. Bring sketch book to recreate the floor plan for your dream home.

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We stayed for a week at the Lakeside Lodge in Jinja and have probably ruined ourselves for any future hotel stays. This one really set the bar to an unreachable place. Have you ever booked a night somewhere and fancied just moving right in–forever? We actually found ourselves sketching out the floorplan–we want to design a house just like the Lakeside Lodge. The master with the en suite bath, open shower, raw wood and stone is really a jaw-dropper. The kitchen, though we didn’t make proper use of it, was one that any aspiring chef would fawn over. And the view–the spiral staircase to the upper deck was total bird’s eye–putting a hum on all the activity below. We were sharing air space with hawks and storks up there!

The bed was so welcome after some stiff sleeps in Murchison. Our only chore was wandering over to the Gately restaurant (just across the road) for more of what we had first experienced at the sister Gately location in Entebbe. Crash in Entebbe for a night while you shake off the jetlag shadows–then make the journey (3-4 hours) to Jinja (the ‘adventure capital of Uganda’. Here you can rip around on ATVs, go horseback riding along the Nile, visit the Nile brewery, chill at the yacht club–which is walking distance and they make potent Long Islands, or book a sunset cruise through Gately for $45US per person to the source of the Nile–a must).

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Gately will restore your senses. Come with books, order a few gins and find a banda. We spent many hours chatting in the bandas, there are three or four tucked along the path that winds from the hotel to the restaurant. The grounds here are just immaculate–it’s like sitting in the botanical gardens with a serious bird soundtrack.

Here’s what you need to order from the kitchen: Cobb salad, Kashmiri chicken, any of the fiery curries and the Nile burger.

You can easily walk to town (15-20 minutes), you can even walk to the golf course (rental clubs available and caddies)—Kim loved navigating a course that involved dodging vervet monkeys, termite mounds, grazing cattle and hippo footprints.

But, if you are also happy just to park yourself and walk about the lodge like a Hollywood starlet, that’s good too. Helen and Georgina are smooth operators and helped us immensely in organizing the Pineapple Express (a $12US per person private van to Kampala) and the future leg of our trip by contacting hotels for us about availability. The security guards were always right on the dot with wake-up calls too!

Again, hot, indulgent showers, lots of places to lie about and feel spoiled. Thanks, Gately! And, somehow I managed to get a decadent surprise birthday cake AND foie gras during my stay too! So appreciated!

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Well, that was 2015. We’ve already kick-started this year off swimmingly with two weeks in Las Galeras and Las Terrenas in northern Samana, Dominican Republic. Where next? Well, we often surprise ourselves. Where was the best place you slept last year?

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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!).

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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?

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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.

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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

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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.

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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…

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

Categories: Passport Please, Sip That | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!)

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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

(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

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We weren’t supposed to sleep here. Despite having made a reservation with booking.com, 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.

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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!)

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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

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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

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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.

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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.

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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)

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I missed the booking.com 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?

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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