Passport Please

my carbon footprints and passport stamps around the world

(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

DSCF7482

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.

DSCF7485

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!)

DSCF7749

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

DSCF7801

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.

DSCF7809

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.

DSCF7797

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)

DSCF7938

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

DSCF7993

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.

DSCF7987

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.

DSCF8025

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)

DSCF8149

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?

DSCF8268

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.

DSCF8150

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)

DSCF8307

 

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.

DSCF8325

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.

DSCF8343

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.

DSCF8285

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.

DSCF8284

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.

Advertisements
Categories: Passport Please | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Ms. Adventures of Kim and Jules in Colombia

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

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

DSCF7738

Hell Ride #1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DSCF7731

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

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

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

DSCF7809

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

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

Right.

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

DSCF7918

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

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

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

DSCF7924

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

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

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

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

DSCF7793

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

DSCF7827

Brain wave #3: Flamingo Stalking

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

“Yes.”

“Where did you find that wine?”

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

DSCF8055

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

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

DSCF8120

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

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

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

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

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

DSCF8072

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

DSCF8086

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DSCF8090

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

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

DSCF8091

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

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

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

The Best Places We Slept in 2014

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

Zanzibar 2014 351

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

PEI & The Maggies June 2014 307

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

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

Kichanga Lodge, Zanzibar

Zanzibar 2014 023

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

Zanzibar 2014 188

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

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

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

Zanzibar 2014 327

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

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

La Rose des Vents, Magdalen Islands, Quebec

PEI & The Maggies June 2014 221

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s taking us there?”

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

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

PEI & The Maggies June 2014 253

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

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

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

$85 per night, including decadent breakfast

PEI & The Maggies June 2014 297

The Adventure Hotel, Nelson, British Columbia

300

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

314

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

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

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

411

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

386

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

396

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

$180 per night, including breakfast

384

Caberneigh Farms, Uxbridge, Ontario

(in particular, site #860 and the Airstream)

DSCF5955

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

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

DSCF6006 DSCF5998

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

DSCF5965

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

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

Priceless

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

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

Booking Three Weeks in Colombia, South America (aka How We Coped With Our First Snowfall)

Last week, if you had asked, we were rather dead-set on checking out Bolivia and Chile. The week before that I had Curacao all mapped out and was madly flipping between sell-off flight sites.

And, then, quite innocently, Colombia was put on our radar. An affable guy I met in Entebbe, Uganda back in 2008 (in a distraught state, having just had his wallet stolen on an overland bus) had posted his upcoming travel itinerary on Facebook. Andrew, a NY lawyer with a chronic travel bug, has been to the kinds of places that attract us. We seem to be on the same travel parallel. I hit him up for Iceland info two years ago, after learning that he had been there for a stag party.  I offered him savoury bits on Belize. Our worlds had collided in Africa for good reason.

When he mentioned Colombia, I posted some nonchalant comment that he should check out Anthony Bourdain’s recent No Reservations episode on Colombia. The next morning, ironically, I was sucked into a feature on Providencia and San Andres, Colombia in the travel section of the Record. I found myself underlining bits and Googling flight paths before work. The connection times were gross, all routed through Panama with an overnight stay (with Bogota just an hour away). All flights had a stop at JFK (just an hour from Toronto) and a four to six hour layover in New York. However, despite the crappy flights (hell, we endured 17 hours of flying to get to Zanzibar, why the wimpy whining now?

Providencia was totally our speed—it sounded like the magical atoll that we needed after just one blast of snow. We needed a climate-controlled environment, stat.

snow bound

A few winters ago we became big ambassadors of Belize—especially Caye Caulker. The romance was in the casual, lazy vibe, killer cheap curries, colourful beach huts, old school bikes and barefoot philosophy. However, Caye Caulker offers little more than pure sun, gin-coloured water, paralyzing rum drinks and addictive ceviche. There is an opportunity to break your back on a dodgy 2+ hour boat ride to the Blue Lagoon and (better yet) to Lighthouse Caye to see the red-footed booby colony. But, that’s about it–though there is nothing wrong with that winter rehab prescription!

The rest of Belize offered everything else—terrifying cave adventures neck-deep in water, an opportunity to sleep at the zoo, river tubing, howler monkeys and bird mania.

DSCF3053

I knew Kim was keen on some adventure and cultural literacy (in tandem with the lazy beach, beer and book days). Colombia appeared again—I was skimming through a Huffington Post article on the Top 50 Cities to See in Your Lifetime. Of course, Colombia was there, like an epiphany, seated at #36.

cartagena 4

36.) Cartagena, Colombia – The colonial city of Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast has a history filled with explorers, pirates, and royalty, and it’s UNESCO-recognized Old City is every bit as enchanting as you’d expect.

I returned all the guide books I had checked out of the local library on Bolivia and Chile. Now I was searching the catalog for “Columbia.” I was disappointed to see that the search pulled up zero matches. When I expressed my concern to our esteemed librarian, Mary Lou, she immediately tapped away at her keyboard, also in belief. “Let me look,” she said with total librarian authority. She found a 2014 Colombia Moon Guide right off the crack.

“What? How come that came up for you? I typed in the same thing on that computer over there and had no matches.” I shrugged.

“Show me.” We marched off to the terminal near the travel shelves.

The screen still showed my recent search. Keyword: Columbia.

“Well, Jules, ‘Colombia’ is spelled with two o’s not a ‘u.’”

Oh, duh, I’d been busted by the spelling and library police.

Now that I knew how to spell Colombia, the search changed dramatically. That night I laughed at the Moon guide’s content for San Andres. The biggest highlight was “Big Pond.” Rastafarian-owned, the pond had no set hours, no set fee and visitors are told to ask for Fernando. Apparently, if he is there, Fernando will feed white bread to the alligators. Wow. This is the Big Pond. Nearby there was a hole in the coral that, when the tide was just so, sprayed water 10m in the air. I couldn’t believe how exciting San Andres was! Gosh, we’d want to go see the alligator feeding and big splash every day!

Scouring Providencia (an island nearly 800km north of Colombia, but just 230km east of Nicaragua) on booking.com and airbnb for accommodations a lesson in frustration. The price points for lackluster ‘hotels’ (not beachfront even) were off-putting (ie. Scary).

And this is how it happens. I started looking at Bogota (elevation too high = cooler temps). Our first questions with travel destinations are always: How’s the heat? And, what’s to eat?

A zesty Brit I met on a Toronto pub patio years ago, Ju Hayes, Facebooked me pronto to say Colombia had giant ant salty snacks and hot chocolate served with melted cheese in the bottom of the mugs. Talk about an apres-ski fondue and hot cocoa all-in-one. I was immediately charmed.

Recurve-billed bushbird

While Kim was busy toiling away at the steel mill, I hunkered down and researched our new unexpected zone—it had to be Cartagena and the 1,760 Caribbean coastline that stretches from Panama to Venezuela. There are 1,800 bird species (the most in the world!) in Colombia. Over 3,500 orchids. Fifty species of bats! There are volcanoes where you can soak in a thermal mud bath, rivers to tube down and desert sand dunes in Nazareth even. I already had us kayaking through the placid mangroves to see the flamingoes and sleeping in cabanas made from yotojoro (cacti) heart.

DSCF2978

Humid jungles, arid dunes, sloths, empanadas, empty beaches, coffee farms, solar-powered huts—all the boxes were ticked.

When Kim phoned from work I told her that we had a whole new game plan. I couldn’t wait for her to get home to sell the coastline package to her. I pulled up pics of Tayrona National Park with wild horses on the beach, showed her the crunchy La Sirena cabanas on an old coconut plantation (we’d skip the yoga classes). I wooed her with the Dunas de Taroa that drop 30m into the sea. A few beachy pics of the icing sugar-white sand and the contrast of the walled city of Cartagena and its historic appeal had Kim on board.

jungle hut

As the snow pounded down and cars spun sideways down our street I had my credit card at the ready. We clinked glasses of Lug Tread as we warmed our butts on the kitchen rad. “Let’s do it.”

And, so, suddenly, or not so suddenly, we are going to Colombia for three weeks in January. Stay tuned. And, if you’ve been—let me know! I want all the gory details—who, how, when, why!

Pre-trip homework:

  1. Rent Romancing the Stone. A romance writer sets off to Colombia to ransom her kidnapped sister, and soon finds herself in the middle of a dangerous adventure.
  2. Read One Hundred Years of Solitude. The 1967 novel by Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez tells the multi-generational story of the Buendía family, whose patriarch, José Arcadio Buendía, founds the town of Macondo, the metaphoric Colombia.
  3. Re-watch Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations episode on Colombia—from drug capital to food capital.
  4. Watch Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods: Colombia The host eats everything from capybara to caiman to jungle rats.
  5. Brush up on 1,800 Colombian birds.
  6. Drink a lot of Colombian coffee so I’m well-versed.
Categories: Passport Please | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rocky Mountain Road Trip Part 3: Okanagan to Banff

Two things learned. I have sub zero interest in being a long haul trucker and owning a RV–well, that would be a sheer nightmare. I realize some places in the world require driving to get to point A, B and B and a half, but, my true self prefers the pedestrian pace and jumping on trains or more planes if need be.

Driving back to Banff from Naramata meant retracing our route–those darn mountains left highway builders scratching plans for alternates. Which meant we’d be on the BC-3 for 54o.04 km back to Cranbrook. That’s 6 hours and 57 minutes of suggested driving time. Even with the prospects of spotting Sasquatch, it’s a hamstring-cramping haul.

415

I should hardly bitch–I’m not even the driver! But, as Kim will attest, it’s hard for me to remain awake as the passenger. I yawned 5,467 times as we went higher and higher in elevation. I blamed it on the thin air of the Bonanza Pass at 5,035 feet and the inn’s satiating breakfast frittata. And, perhaps, that 10am wine tasting at Blasted Church in Okanagan Falls.

412

Even though there are nearly 100 super accessible roadside wineries in the Okanagan, I like to find the ones that are seemingly wild goose chases. Signage was elusive and the road was more like 15km on a gravel driveway to nowhere. But, what a delight. As their website suggests: “Park your attitude at the farmgate, this winery has no place for traditional wine stuffiness and gravitas. Blasted Church is the Okanagan Valley’s most creative, inspired and fun destination for wine lovers. Blasted Church wines are often celebrated for their divine quality. Our wine labels, however, give heartburn to the most discriminating oenophiles.”

The story behind the Blasted Church is a grand tale involving an actual explosion. The Big Bang Theory was, that if the church was blasted from the interior, the impact would loosen the nails and the church would be easier to disassemble (it was being moved to another location). Oddly it worked, but clearly, do not try this at home.

We spoke with a gentle retired chap who shared behind-the-scenes info about his coveted gig at the winery. He’s at the comfortable age where he doesn’t need money and is happy to step back to allow the younger population a job opportunity. So, he picks up the few days over exams and the back to school crush. Which equals 18 days a year, give or take. Imagine. Kim and I nodded–yes, this would be our dream retirement ‘job.’

The wine list here is a riot: Bible Thumper, Holy Moly, Nothing Sacred, Mixed Blessings–you get the twist. We opted for the Big Bang Theory as a take-away and decided if we had a vineyard and knew how to make wine, this would be our schtick. But, that would probably involve more than 18 days a year and it’s so much easier to lay down $19.50 for somebody else’s dirty work.

We whizzed back through the fruit stands that clog the roadsides to Oliver. If you’ve been through the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario–the BC fruit stands are the equivalent of the smoke and rollies shops in Oshweken. We stopped for fall fair  contest winning peaches and blushing plums and pointed fingers at the brilliant purple peppers, yellow watermelons and syrups squeezed out of every possible fruit.

*Which reminds me–we have some black raspberry syrup for our next lazy Sunday buttermilk pancake session.

418

Driving, driving, driving. Oh, and  a new warning outside of the usual elk, moose, mountain goat signage: Watch for sudden weather changes 27 km ahead. Great. As we snaked up the Mt. Everest-esque summit behind crawling logging trucks we watched the temperature on the dash plummet a few degrees every minute. Kim was anticipating a flash freeze as we dipped from 17 to 3 degrees in no time. Now was not the time for elk or moose.

421

After the nerve-exhausting climb up and down the mountain pass we were happy to roll into Rossland and Trail. Every house in Rossland had a steeply pitched steel roof. These were snow towns–and, being on the shoulder season of skiing, it also meant that very little was open besides a used tire shop. We had planned on staying in Trail that night but were rather disappointed in the snore of a town.  Possible claims to fame? Kerrin-Lee Gartner who won the downhill Olympic gold in 1992 is from Trail. And, about 1,000 Italian immigrants who moved to the Gulch area. After stepping inside three dodgy restaurants, we settled on the Arlington Hotel Bar and Grill. It’s the kind of place you walk into and everyone turns their head. Day drinkers, Keno, neon, wood panelling and Queen.

Our server was so sweet when I enquired about the “Big Surf” lager. She explained, “It’s one of those micro-things everyone is talking about these days. It’s nice.”

So, we had nice Big Surfs on her urging, a butter-slicked Monte Cristo and chicken caesar wrap. While we waited for our order I went to the hall of fame-type section in the restaurant. There were Garfield cartoons, polaroids of drunk people fishing in the 70s and a few trophies for unknown things. Interesting.

Departing Trail and its glumness, we made the big push to Cranbrook, traversing the Kootenay Summit, 10 degree temperature changes and big horn sheep warnings.

461

Cranbrook was equally sleepy–just a long stretch of chain hotels and aging strip malls. It was truly just a crash night and when the Best Western was suggesting $189 a night for a Queen room I was flabbergasted. No, not after our lap of historical luxury at the Naramata Heritage Inn for the same price tag and a lovely frittata.

We reminisced about the crappy horror of a place we stayed in Dakhla, Egypt–the pistachio green walls–the fridge that was hotter than a microwave inside–the wallpaper border of hunting labrador retrievers–the shower that was clogged and flooded the 2 by 2 bathroom–the flickering flourescent lights and Donald Duck decor. Surely we could make the best out of the “Heritage Inn” in Cranbrook with a hot breakfast all for $95 plus tax. (Not sure where the heritage part comes in–it had no visible relation to the Naramata Heritage Inn). The other hotels I had stepped into while Kim kept the car running were the type you’d hide from the FBI in or, kill yourself while listening to Lionel Richie on repeat. It doesn’t take much to make a room pleasing. A white duvet, some throw pillows and a black and white framed photo or two. Why the garage sale-ready prints of flowers and peacocks? Why the floral bedspreads?

For $95 we survived. Don’t even get me started on our three room changes with the TV that hummed louder than the actual TV volume. Or, the blast and rumble of the train all night long. Or, the hot (loosely used term) breakfast in the morning where we actually shook from the vibration of the idling train outside. The servers laughed it off–I thought I was mid-seizure.

Cranbrook to Radium Hot Springs: 142.81km

Kim and I quickly decided that we’d be looking outside of Radium for accommodations that night. Hot rods ripped up and down the main drag–it was the annual classic car show and people were lined up in lawnchairs, all snacked out, watching the parade of suped-up vehicles that would carry on for the weekend. We bought some smoked turkey sandwiches to go and disappeared up the Redstreak Trail, far from the madness.

428

The hike started on a full-on 90 degrees angle. Think of the Grouse Grind, Vancouverites. I could only hear my heart in my head for the first 15 minutes. If a bear schemed to come eat us, it would have been the perfect time–our calves burned and our lungs felt sat upon. But, oh, the vistas!

435

We took the lower Sinclair Creek Trail after a sandwich pit stop. Kim submerged a few cans of beer in the creek that we were hoping to see blood red Kokanee Salmon running up. The ferocious rush of water and whiskey jacks were a Solitudes soundtrack waiting to happen though. Minus the rumble of the machinery chugging around the nearby sawmill.

460

Instant rehab was soon found in the the 102 degree waters of Radium Hot Springs. For $6.70 a person, it’s the cheapest way to happiness. Once we navigated the bighorn sheep in the parking lot it was easy to surrender to the surrounds.

463

That night we found a perfect little cabin in Brisco, 27km north of Radium. We were welcomed by a scrappy three-legged dog and a less than social owner.

464

The cabin was kitted out with a kitchenette (and a humming fridge that we had to unplug at night so we didn’t go mad–is there a theme with humming things, or what?), a stone fireplace AND an outdoor firepit. An unlimited pile of firewood and an axe = a five hour-long fire for the pyros.

472

Kim expertly grilled a Dr. Oetker thin crust pizza by headlamp. The stars–my god, there were a bazillion in Brisco. We drank a Californian merlot–Three Blind Moose, and watched the sky so intently that we both saw a falling star. This would be the perfect snuggle spot for the Perseid meteorite showers in August!

The night air was seriously brisk–at this point I was wearing all the long sleeves I had packed. The chattering red squirrels and their machine gun calls had subsided. It was well after midnight when we doused the fire, having retraced our road trip a few times over each glass of wine in between ping ponging ideas for our next destination. This is how it happens! Innocent fireside chats and suddenly we are flying to the Corn Islands or the Bolivian Salt Flats.

We hurried out of the bungalows in the morning (no Keurigs or thermostats here!). In Radium we just missed the 8-9am $1.00 coffee happy hour at the local deli/bakery. We spent the extra bucks on a stiff Kicking Horse blend and tucked into just-baked blueberry muffins. Cue up Nat Geo–a black bear and her cub meandering alongside the road! There was no time to snap a picture–it was just one of those solid gold life-is-awesome moments that we shared.

Driving back to Banff, the return to the treed mountains was a sharp contrast from our tumbleweed desert trek. With the larch trees in full form (liquid sunshine yellow), I felt like we were transplanted into a miniature train set landscape. Oh, and don’t forget to add the bald eagle catching a ride on a thermal above us.

We did a speed tour of Banff–squishing in a hike along the Spray River behind the regal Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. My contentment level peaked when I had secured two of Evelyn’s mammoth peanut butter and choco chip cookies (the best in Canada–and I’ve tried 86% of cookies available). Kim found a sweet deal on a pair of Scarpa hikers for our Camino de Santiago training  and we still had time to down a pint on the rooftop of the Elk and Oarsmen on Banff Ave.

500

And, the birthday revelry continued. We reconnected with my parents and the just-marrieds for a bottle of Veuve (thanks Lynne!)  and apps in the driveway (*Redneck disclaimer: Kiley’s deck was in shade and we were all happy to suck up the  last blast of the western heat wave. I also liked how the seating and table arrangements were comrpised of coolers, bear barrels and a painting that Mark did in highschool on wood).

"Larry, you just clunked me in the head and don't spill my champagne!"

“Larry, you just clunked me in the head and don’t spill my champagne!”

That night we had the perfect send-off. Kiley pulled us outside, bubbling more than the Cliquot. “Listen! The elks are bugling!” With every blast of the train horn in the dead silence of the night, the elks responded with a guttural bugle and whistle.

Yeah, amazing. Rocky Mountain Roadtrip complete. Six days, 10 bottles of Okanagan’s magic, 56 beers, two bears and 1,791km.

 

498

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

Rocky Mountain Road Trip Part 2: Nelson to Naramata

Nelson to Osooyos: 262.45km

Soundtrack: I Drove All Night, Cyndi Lauper

Road Snack: Buxom Okanagan apples, 1.5 kilos of Costco trail mix (mostly down to the gross raisins)

Nelson, BC is true hippie headquarters. As you enter the core, there is a significant increase in yoga studios, Birkenstocks, a surplus of tie-dye, transients and stranded and broke twentysomethings with guitars and huskies.

300

We found a perfect launching pad in the Adventure Hotel on Vernon street. The heritage building has been updated with a serious dose of cool since its 1913 heyday. The walls are corrugated iron, the ceilings are clockwork orange and the hallway carpet is very Andy Warhol. The lobby counter has bike cog wheels embedded in its surface, there’s a “Hogwash Station” for bikers out back and Kootenay coffee is at the ready in the commons room.

314

It’s architectural design mag-worthy—and the rooms have a slick Euro-feel with exposed brick and ducts and  super-sexy en suite showers. And, to boot, you can order a 6-pack of Hell’s Gate Lager for $10 from the room service menu.

My sister had gushed endlessly about Nelson—so much so that she admitted it was her second choice to live, if Banff didn’t win out on the mountain scene. I get it. The waterfront trail winds around a tiny marina on the western arm of Kootenay Lake and sits in the shadow of the Selkirk mountains. The parks are lush and the soccer pitches have dip nets (to retrieve soccer balls that get ambitiously hoofed into the lake). Kim and I walked the trail and took in the parade of organic-looking locals with equally happy dogs, kamikaze kids on BMX bikes and groovy skateboarders on longriders. You can feel the community hug in this place.

306

From the waterfront, the town itself is San Francisco-like with monster hills (total calf-burners on my morning run). Note: don’t buy a standard in these parts. The main drag is rich with gear shops, yoga this-and-that and relaxed indie coffee joints. After a substantial wander and some fawning over Patagonia shells and fleece we were drawn to the stately Hume Hotel with its landmark neon sign beckoning.

311

It was dark and moody inside, but in a good way. Two greyhound-thin guys in even skinnier skinny jeans played unobtrusive jazzy numbers. The place was packed. I felt like we had just stepped into 1898 (the year it was built) with our horse tethered outside while we ordered pints of Nelson Brewing Company Harvest Lager. A crab and artichoke dip became dinner as we had spent the day grazing on trail mix and had bypassed an appetite hours ago. However, had they brought out another terrine of dip, I would have been game.

Back at our Adventure Hotel, Kim and I set to work re-plotting our trip (again) and turned our bed into a tourist information booth with the stacks of brochures we had collected for the Okanagan. We could hardly stay awake until 9pm—I know, a world record. The two of us haven’t gone to bed at 9 since we were probably 7-years-old.

Kim was eager to get going in the morning, hoping that we’d make it to the desert and be able to enjoy a few solid hours lakeside in the afternoon sun. We hit up a nearby coffee shop called Oso Negro (Kiley insisted we go for “e-balls” and dandelion lattes) and had total guilt pangs about not travelling with a reuseable mug. The shop actually has a central rinsing station, and, everyone except us got the memo about a decade ago. We queued up with at least two dozen Oso Negro die-hards. I spied the e-balls that Kiley got glassy-eyed talking about, but, the baseball-sized ball of 100% peanut butter rolled in seeds and dunked half in chocolate looked like protein overkill to me. Too rich for my morning palate. Instead, Kim and I went for the carb-load of pineapple raisin and white chocolate-raspberry muffins that could double as doorstops.

The dandelion latte was a curious brew. I’m glad we tried it, but, I don’t need to try it again. It had a savoury finish, almost like chicken broth. But, it’s the kind of drink you keep sipping because it’s so weird and you need to keep trying to establish the exact taste profile until it’s finished.

Fuelled with dandelions and muffins (cake in disguise) we were ready to take on the next leg of the race—to Osooyos. The scenery changed dramatically every twenty minutes as we drove deep into the Arrid Extra Dry landscape. The ponderosa pines of the Kootenayshad thinned out long ago and the few trees we saw now were scrubbier. Remember Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree? Yes, a stretch of those. We had entered the zone of bleached grasses, taupe monotones and possible tumbleweeds. I started craving cans of pork n’ beans and Maker’s Mark in a metal cup by a blazing fire. It was the wild west, indeed.

355

In Fort Greenwood (blink-gone) we passed Dr. Van Hulligan’s Circus of Calamities. The gold rush-esque town was dotted with trapper cabins, collapsing barns and saloon-ish bars. We drove a little faster through these parts half-expecting to see Dawg the Bounty Hunter or Christopher Walken.

Driving, driving, driving. On high alert for burrowing owls, Ogopogo and Sasquatch.

  • Next Nelson visit: All Seasons Cafe—a back alley bistro dishing out ‘left coast inland cuisine’ like bison spring rolls
  • Sandon: a silver mine ghost town. I like the mingling of abandonment, history and creepy.

Osooyos, BC

Selling features: 2, 039 hours of sunshine, less than 318mm of rain, average summer temperature of 28 degrees Celsius with a low of 1.3 degrees Celsius in the winter

335

Similar to Spain in climate and terrain, residents have adoped an Iberian-style in buildling construction as well. Dubbed “Canada’s Warmest Welcome,” it totally was—the temp was 26 degrees. Like water diviners, Kim and I drove immediately to the two waterfront hotels we had earmarked online. Realizing the sun was going to set at the Coast Hotel versus Walnut Beach Resort, our decision was easy. Plus, Coast had cute complimentary Q-tip packages, in-room Starbucks Verona and a pancake machine in the breakfast room. By 2pm we were Q-tipped, on lounge chairs and well under the spell of Osooyos Lake (Canada’s warmest fresh water lake).

Our books went largely unread. We stared and strolled the shore, pausing to chat up a retired couple from the UK who were like sage owls in their slick of coconut oil, dispensing snowbird advice. Osooyos was kinda like stepping into the movie Cocoon. Everyone was over the age of 60, limber and as tanned as Bob Barker.

328

Osooyos highlights included a drop in to Nk’mip Cellars—Canada’s first aboriginal owned and operated winery. The 2012 Syrah blend was pure plum and cedar and the perfect sundowner with wedges of maple cheddar.

346

In the morning we tracked down the geo-marvel that is the Spotted Lake. Just eight kilometres from Osooyos on Highway 3, the sacred lake is a jawdropper with its crystallized “spots” of minerals. Dense deposits of magnesium sulfate, calcium, sodium sulphate, silver and titanium create multi-coloured rings, especially in the summer. It’s outer spacey and a fine display of Mother Nature’s creative side.

347

Oliver, BC

This is the northern tip of the American Great Basin Desert (which extends to Mexico) and the south end of the Okanagan Valley– the trampoline jump to the Golden Mile. A map pinpointing the location of every winery in this area looks something like a Bingo card dabbed by a drunkard. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the proximity and clever names. Burrowing Owl was a must for me because they’re generous to our feathered friends. While Cariboo Brewing Company donates 10% to restoring forests ravaged by the Asian Pine Beetle, Burrowing Owl puts 100% of their tasting donations to owl rehab restoration projects. I like drinking responsibly!

All the reds we tried at Burrowing Owl were silky and big on the barnyard mouth-feel. Or, as the tasting notes suggested, “bacon and pastry crust.”

See Ya Later Ranch—the playful dog-centered winery donates 100% to the local SPCA. They sell everything from neon dog ponchos to dog-friendly peanut butter to a snappy Brut. We scooped a Jimmy My Pal chard/pinot gris but were quite sorry that we weren’t hungry enough for a patio perch lunch overlooking the rolling wine terrace. For those in the hood: How about their Brie LT? Brie, basil pesto, garlic confit and tomato with a fennel balsamic reduction.

359

Oliver Twist—check out the cool vintage cars! The winemakers here are young bucks—35 and mad for the vintage hot rods. The Summer Passion Rose would be a fun pour to swirl on a June afternoon.

365

Black Widow—the name and branding sucked us in naturally. The 2012 Phobia was a punch of black raspberry and seductive throughout. The port was a complete surprise. Aged 21 months in French oak barrels, this one would be a crowd pleaser with a chunk of Fair Trade sea salt-flecked dark chocolate in the mix.

Oh, it was difficult not to go all Sideways, but Kim was driving and I was getting cranked on so many sips. We bypassed Laughing Stock, Misconduct, Howling Buff and Ruby Blues. Silver Sage Winery with their infamous bottles with submerged hot peppers would have to await a future Golden Mile redux. Same with Hester Creek and their wood-fired potato and truffle pizza and Tuscan sausage-stuffed calzones.

Canada’s wine capital of 20 wineries in 20km is rather dreamy. Unfortunately, wine tours with shuttles demand $60++ bucks a person. Instead, we reasoned, for $120 you can have one dedicated taster and drive away with five decent bottles.

And, it was my birthday after all. So, as dedicated taster, we swooped in on one last winery: THERAPY. It seemed appropriate.

367

Part of the Naramata Bench, the labels here are completely Freudian, of course! I quickly chose a syrah, the best accompaniment for our soak in the tub later that night at the Naramata Heritage Inn and Spa.

Backtrack: Our original plan was to stay in Penticton, possibly in a yurt (inconveniently located just feet from the highway). That was a blow-out. It’s just a big box city, clogged with traffic and with zero charm. The only saving grace was that the tourist info centre also had a wine tasting area. The staff there directed us to Naramata (Therapy also had a guest house, but, it was rather remote and we wanted to park the car for the day and get into the vino purchases).

The Naramata Heritage Inn was formerly a girls school house built in 1908. With just 12 rooms, the hotel is intimate, complete with creaking stairs and wonky hallways. I love sleeping in history– a byproduct of owning a 153-year-old home I suppose.

411

We stopped at the local general store and picked up some of Penticton’s Cannery beers (the only praise-worthy thing about Penticton—especially the Anarchy Ale and Naramata Nut Brown), Old Dutch jalapeno chips and another block of cheese. Kim and I were born to picnic, indoors and out.

386

The Inn, with the soaker tub and nostalgia oozing out of the floorboards was pure Romance 101. The rooms had the requisite plush robes and Aveda products to pimp out the bath with a dose of rosemary-mint. There was even a bottle of lavender linen spray.

But first, before the lounging—some sweat. We snaked up through the vineyards to the Kettle Valley Rail Trail and hiked to Little Tunnel (a 4.4km one-way jaunt). The views were surreal, and despite our mutual imaginary bear sound detection (and rattlesnake warnings!) we were left unscathed and seriously moved by the elevation and view over the Naramata bench.

375

384

Day’s end: The Naramata Inn balcony. The sky had threatened us with rain and then shifted. Near the wharf the Damson purple clouds softened with sunset. We read a few chapters of our books (mostly out loud to each other), shared some olives, bites of cheese and unmatchable stillness.

And then, a soak and some Therapy. The best start to 40, I’d say.

396

Categories: Passport Please | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rocky Mountain Road Trip: Part 1

When the phone rang in seemingly the dead of night at the Lake Louise Inn, my brother and Kim both moaned, “ask for a late check-out.” (*I should mention that my brother was in a separate bed—but we were sharing a hotel room).

It wasn’t front desk phoning. And it wasn’t the dead of night. It was just after 9am and we were still in a wine-induced fog from my sister’s wedding the night previous. It was my dad summoning us to the group breakfast at the hotel. Luckily my dad can deliver a steady monologue that doesn’t involve participation—and we merely had to nod, occasionally, still sleeping, staring into our muddy coffee while he made buffet suggestions and offered pastry and pancake bites.

205

Hours later, rejuvenated by that crystalline Rocky Mountain air, Kim and I sat (still semi-trance like) on the benches facing Lake Louise, marvelling at the liquid emerald body. Of my ten visits or so to visit my sister in Banff, I’d never seen Lake Louise unfrozen (this year it was still covered in ice on June 4th). Whiskey jacks hollered and bounced along ponderosa pine branches, displaying much bird bravado. They are the biggest loud-mouths of the avian world.

207

We decided to splash out and take to the patio at the Fairmont hotel. Wild boar bacon pizza with fontina and pints of Rutting Elk red in undiluted sunshine made for a welcome surprise after a week of fretting about the dismal, snow-heavy Alberta forecast.

When we landed in Calgary just two days before, the rental car indicated that it was three degrees. Wet snow whipped at us all along the Trans Canada and turned into pissing rain near Banff. The fields were blanketed in snow from the big dump just two days before. Our wedding outfits were not mountain-friendly. Our route to Osooyos, BC and back to Banff (in six days and counting), would not be as smooth as pudding with snowy summits, slushy passes and spontaneous wildlife in the mix.

227

However, BC was promising a barometer of 27 degrees for the third week of September. Conveniently, my parents had booked a floating time share at the Marble Canyon Resort in Fairmont Hot Springs, BC. The 3,000 square foot “estate” was right on a golf fairway—which if you know my dad and Kim, is the stuff that dreams are made of.

After a lazy Lake Louise afternoon we cruised to Marble Canyon where my mother had elk burgers at the ready. “Can Kim do the barbecue part?” My parents have an unnatural fear of propane barbecues and spontaneous combustion. The resort condo had eight bedrooms I think—it would house the Kardashians and then some. There were two fireplaces and a wrap-around deck that we lounged on until dark.

Asian Pine Beetle Devastation

Asian Pine Beetle Devastation

Though tempted to stay at the canyon castle with my parents, we had a serious driving itinerary to tend to. After the mountain goat flash mobs of Radium Hot Springs and the ghostly apocalyptic passage through Kootenay National Park (where the Asian pine beetle have ravaged the forests for endless miles), we were eager to get to the “pocket desert” in Osooyos, BC.

The larch trees were just beginning to spin gold. Road signs warned of elk, caribou, deer and mountain goats. We passed log home hewing sites and tiny communities comprised of a dozen homes like Ta Ta Creek. Homemade signs advertising candied and smoked salmon dotted the highway.

The pine-infused air was like driving into the world’s longest and biggest air freshener.

Funny intermission: After filling the tank at a Husky station, I double-checked with a middle-aged bedraggled woman sucking on a Slurpee that we were heading in the right direction for Kimberley.

“Yup. You go there and there (madly pointing) and keep on honkin’ to Marysville. You’ll see it. No question.”

(For the remainder of the trip we kept honkin’ to whatever that day’s destination was. That woman has no idea how much she influenced us).

Kimberley

If you blink your eyes twice, you move instantly from anywhere, BC, to Bavariaville. The Kimberley strip is a curious passage into a traditional platzl complete with schnitzel stands, fondue spots and $3 apple strudel.

255

It’s also oddly a metaphysical rock/gem wonderland and the patchouli is cranked out of the stores in fighting force with the frying breaded schnitzel. North America’s largest free-standing cuckoo clock is located here.

257

For $1 you can have the cuckoo come out to play (if you are visiting off the hour). We had a few quarters and a toonie and missed out on the full impact of the landmark’s wonder. The platzl also had an outdoor ping pong set and an oversized chess set to cover all interests I suppose. I was more captivated by our hunt for the Old Bauernhaus.

262

The 350-year-old structure had been transported from Bavaria, Germany and resurrected in Kimberley in 1989. We hoped to have a pint there (and maybe some of the venison geschnetzeltes and spatzle with sour cherry sauce that I had read about on their online menu, but, it was only 11am and the barn wasn’t open until 5pm). Instead we craned our necks and peered in the windows. To think, we bitch about trying to assemble Ikea bookcases. Imagine an entire farmhouse and barn arriving in two shipping containers with no instructions—not even in German? Ugh.

Creston: The Valley of the Swans (though we didn’t see any)

Creston hasn’t observed daylight savings since 1918. I’m still perplexed as to how this all works in the grand scheme of things. Due to the town’s proximity to the US border, many businesses accept American currency. Similarly, Porthill, the US border town, accepts Canadian bucks at the pumps. British Columbia’s last remaining population of the Northern Leopard Frog are found here (not by us) and Creston boasts the latest cherries grown in the Northern hemisphere. I know, wow. Such juxtapositions.

Our Creston experience involved crispy cod fish tacos with kicked-up chipotle aioli at Jimmy’s Pub and Grill, an add-on to a tired hotel on the main drag (the kind that advertises it’s cleanliness and hot water!). We skipped the nearby Kokanee beer factory tour (though I did kinda want to see the big Sasquatch monument there and experience first-hand what they described as a “family-friendly”brewery tour) and drank Jimmy’s Kokanee amber without the beer lesson (enjoying the reality show-like banter between the various day drinkers instead).

Sometimes it’s just time-savvy to read the blurbs from the tourist brochures and glance out the window at 80km/hr. I was turning into an audio book for Kim, giving her the highlights of each place we drove through.

The Labatt owned Kokanee brewery was involved in movie-making? Playing on the company’s slogan “It’s The Beer Out Here” they so cleverly named the movie “It’s The Movie Out Here.” Touted as a Canadian buddy comedy, it debuted at the Whistler Film Fest and had a limited run at theatres in Western Canada. Characters from Kokanee’s past campaigns starred in the film, but it tanked due to “an over-reliance on lewd content and product placement.”

Wiki has volumes on the Kokanee Sasquatch mascot storyboard that reads very much like a soap-opera. The Sasquatch hunter of earlier commercials was even killed off. Beer drama! The trailer for It’s The Movie Out Here# looks 100% terrible, even if you were skunked on Kokanee.

Wynndel, BC: population 900

Gas stations were fast becoming my favourite spots. In these wayward interior “towns” the stations are the go-to for current events and Duck Dynasty-style fleece wear. Kim had to pull me out of a few stations after I straggled in the aisles, mesmerized by the fancy lures, rifles, fresh huckleberries ($10/pound) and assortment of jerky. The bulletin boards outside of Fas Gas (no, not FAST, just Fas Gas) were a constant source of entertainment from the heritage pigs for sale ads to the glossy pics of a swimming Red Roan mare for $1,200 (one week trial offered) to tai chi groups, turkey shoots, funeral notices and ‘hempcrete’ (yes, concrete made out of hemp, somehow). There was even an advert posted by a 10-year-old who promised “to play with your children while you work or read a book” for $3/hour. But, she could only work for three hours max. Smart kid.

Huckleberry-less, we had to remain focused as the free ferry (the world’s longest free ferry—a 35 minute crossing of Kootenay Lake) to Balfour was departing at 2:50 (the next was slated for two hours after that) and I was keen on seeing the Creston Glass House en route. We planned to snake up along Kootenay Lake and ferry over to Nelson for the scenic vistas, and indeed, there was a solid dose of oohs and ahhs on the windy road.

248

The Creston Glass House was built in 1952 by a genius mortician. David H. Brown decided to repurpose over 500,000 square discarded embalming fluid bottles and construct a two level house with them. He didn’t stop there—he also built a watchtower and bridge. The 1,200 square foot house is quirky and creepy—but, for $10, a worthy roadside attraction.

291

274

HGTV’s Sarah Richardson would have a heyday in this joint. The southern lake view is uninterrupted and it made Kim and I wonder what we could build out of beer bottles.

275

As we queued up for the ferry to Nelson we began to re-think our ambitious journey. The driving times with those pesky BC mountains meant for a lot of long harrowing hauls. Yes, we had tackled 1,000km routes before (across the desert to the Siwa Oasis from Cairo and south to Luxor), and we made it around the Ring Road in Iceland intact (with hurricane winds, a blizzard and a sandstorm to contend with) in nine days. But, did we want to be crushing the miles and bypassing woodsy trails and cutesy cafes just to get to the next spot? We had already given up the likes of Sasquatch, a family-friendly beer tour and a taxidermy museum because of precious time. But, now if we were cutting out the traverse to Vernon and Kelowna, we’d be missing out on the kangaroo sanctuary, the Myra Canyon part of the Kettle Valley Trail with 18 train trestles to bike across, the fried chicken and waffle sandwiches at Doc Willoughby’s Public House, the Pulp Fiction Coffee House and an artisan goat cheese cellar that served up goat’s milk gelato. Sigh.

I pulled out my makeshift green crayon highlighter and concluded that a re-route could afford us more time in the desert looking for burrowing owls and increased quaffing time wine country. Duh. We could leave the kangaroos for Australia and surely Toronto will catch on to the fried chicken and waffle sandwich craze in a month or so.

286

Scratch Vernon and Kelowna. Hello Penticton and Naramata Bench. We would keep on honkin’ on a less-taxing route.

Stay tuned.

Categories: Passport Please | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cornering Nirvana in the Magdalen Islands

PEI & The Maggies June 2014 212It has become apparent that our new angle in travel is cornering nirvana. With Kim’s looming retirement almost edibly on the horizon, every place we visit undergoes scrutiny for future real estate potential. With southwestern Ontario winters becoming increasingly like a barren Arctic experience, we’re setting our sights on more palatable landscapes and temperatures. Don’t even get me started on the barometric disappointment of this summer. Ugh.

However, even at a bone-deep 13 degrees, under a duvet of fog, we found an immense love for the Magdalen Islands. We were already heading east to Prince Edward Island, an annual pre-determined event to visit Kim’s parents and bloodlines. Kim has been to PEI over 50 times. It was my fourth visit and the lure of crab cakes, lobster rolls and the cinnamon cliffs of Cavendish will never pale for me. But, we wanted to jazz up the annual this time and tack on a few days nearby. Flights to Newfoundland out of Charlottetown were prohibitive. We’d both been to Halifax a few times. I investigated ferries to Boston and Maine, but, we needed more days than we’d already stretched.

PEI & The Maggies June 2014 194

I’d heard of the Magdalen Islands years ago but somehow lumped them in with Saint Pierre and Miquelon which sit in the northwestern part of the Atlantic, near Fortune Bay, Newfoundland. The neat part is that the islands are owned by France. The Maggies (or Iles de la Madeleine) are an archipelago in the Gulf of St. Lawrence just five hours from Souris, PEI. But, despite being geographically closer to PEI and Nova Scotia, the francophone Magdalens are part of Quebec.

With a tight population of less than 13,000 and a land mass of 205 square kilometers, we knew we could bomb around the chain of islands in three days. Plus, I had found an Air Canada seat sale for $240 bucks (the same airfare as a Toronto to Charlottetown ticket). The ferry was an additional $100 (for two), but, the only option for us to get from PEI to the Maggies.

PEI & The Maggies June 2014 238

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

Wind indeed. Rain indeed. Jean-Francois was at the ferry gate as promised. It all seemed so dodgy, just weeks before, booking a rental car with him without a confirmation number or email receipt. Nothing, just Jean-Francois assuring me that he had been in the business for 30 years, that he didn’t have a computer, and he would be at the ferry at 7pm.

PEI & The Maggies June 2014 254

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

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

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

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

“He’s taking us there?”

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

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

Between Jean-Francois and Mr. Dorito, we were already charmed.

PEI & The Maggies June 2014 221

Just before we flew east I had immersed myself in the Magdalens courtesy of Claire Mowat and her memoir, “Travels with Farley.” From their outport life in Newfoundland, the Mowats ended up spending several magical years in Old Harry, near Grand Entree Island. I love when book pages come to life and you can drive directly into the descriptions with that bizarre literary deja vu.

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

PEI & The Maggies June 2014 287

Route 199 (again, so similar to Iceland’s Ring Road) was empty of traffic, save for a scavenging fox and a few stalking herons at the roadside. Scrubby pine forests thinned into soupy bogs. Sand dunes and bleached grasses gave way to brick-red cliffs and verdant hills. I could see how the Mowats were seduced into making a life in the Maggies.

Hickory smoke permeated the air as we neared the Havre-aux-Maisons herring factory. We needed provisions for our day, and nibbles of marninated smoked herring was as authentic as we could get. We picked up extra packs for my mom (who had seen the very factory we were at in a TVO documentary) and some dried razor clams for Michelle, our fisheries friend on the west coast.

PEI & The Maggies June 2014 249

We cued up in line at the cheese factory next, procuring  a bag of squeaky cheese curds. It was all so pastoral and storybook.

As we turned on to the Sea Cow Path I read aloud notes from Claire Mowat’s book. It was the site of the massive slaughter that led to the walrus extinction on the islands in 1799. A dozen hunters could kill 300-400 walruses in a single night because of the animal’s poor vision and defenselessness on land.

Our side trip to the Maggies held all the essential elements for us, and we mused about summering in Bassin at the aptly named L’abri de la Tempete (“Shelter in the Storm”) brewery. Rain spat outside and the powder grey sky looked increasingly ominous. But, tucked in at the bar that oozed whimsy and cozy, we were rather content with our beer paddle. It was an unexpected and lovely pit-stop. I had only expected a 15 minute generic tour of the microbrewery led by some bored or hungover summer student. Here, the view of the western dunes was unmatched. We ordered a brie and old cheddar plate with tiny, chewy in-house baked bread bites (made with beer) served with a puddle of local cranberry preserve and pea sprouts. The saisson made with fleurs picked by the brewmaster was like beer champagne.

PEI & The Maggies June 2014 261

Again, it was the sheer kindness of strangers that led us to the brewery. Bungled with vague directions, we ended up in Fatima, thinking the brewery was close to the city core. We pulled into the Decker Boy restaurant and asked a server if she could point us in the right direction. She had an idea of where the brewery and agreed it was difficult to find. She pulled out a phone book to find the proper address while asking a table of locals eating pizza if they could assist us. Ironically, it was a woman who I remembered from our five hour ferry ride that came to our aid. On the back of a menu they drew a very efficient map (who needs GPS when you have the Decker Boy team of strangeres?) and sent us on our way with many “mercis” on our part.

The western dunes by the brewery were desolate. After being spoiled on Zanzibar’s empty east coast beaches, we’ve become accustomed to being the only visible humans for miles. Here, we found that solitude. Kim skipped stones and we pocketed several smooth rocks. The sand was like that in Basin Head, PEI–“singing sand.” The high silica content makes the sand actually talk underfoot. Like cheese curds.

PEI & The Maggies June 2014 282

We walked several stretches of beach west and east and in Old Harry. When rain threatened again we made our way to La Grave, near our B&B. The first settlers landed here on the pebble beaches and began a thriving fishery. Today, the half moon bay is a hot bed for artists selling silver jewellery, blown glass and acrylic works from their studio spaces. Cafe La Grave became our reliable stop for truly ambient pints amongst the stacks of National Geographics and hardbacks. The robust waft of the on-demand espresso maker mixed with the sweet nutmeg of baking minced pies. On a Wednesday night, a table of jovial twentysomethings suddenly broke into song. Several songs actually as hidden instruments emerged and soon there were flutes, accordions and snare drums in the mix. Pure fun and my god, if you order the mussels–expect a place of over three dozen straight up in a divine briny broth with diced celery and onion. The skin-on fries are killer and the taps are from Shelter From the Storm–the stout is as black as tar and served up in a mason jar. We needed more days to eat our way through the menu which included wild boar sausages and kraut, tartiflettes, salt cod cakes and seal pate even.

Are you hooked yet?

PEI & The Maggies June 2014 297

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

PEI & The Maggies June 2014 307

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

PEI & The Maggies June 2014 253

Of course, the day we left the temperature cranked up to 25 degrees. We spent our last hours on Sandy Hook beach imagining life in a purple house, idle days watching plovers and reading good, inspiring books and endless shoreline walks. Fresh catch on the grill. Nights at the pub.

It came as no surprise when we returned home and fired up the laptop to check out real estate listings in Sandy Hook. Cornering nirvana, it’s the best research to conduct.

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

My Seven Wonders of the World

At some point all of us have fallen into the quicksand powers of distractify.com. Who doesn’t want to put off _____________________(insert any task of importance) in favour of scrolling through gauzy photos of the world’s best beaches or caves you can sleep in? I’m a sucker for all those treehouse and igloo hotels. I can’t get enough of the sunsetty images that channel humidity and kick up that inner well of travel-induced adrenalin. It’s nice to put our brains on slide show mode and dream from the comfort of our home and pajamas.

IMG_0106

Every time I distractify I’m eager to see how many of the coveted places I’ve been to. It’s like a scavenger hunt I didn’t even know I was actively a part of. On a recent post of 41 Secretly Incredible Travel Destinations I felt an inner glow to see the Ancient Library of Alexandria in Egypt included. Ohhh, and Giant’s Causeway in Ireland! Been there! And Grindavik, Iceland. But having scored only 3 out of 41 destinations I thought I should create my own list. Because what’s secretly incredible to me didn’t make that list and wherever we choose to travel, it’s like love and our devotion to certain coffee beans or dog breeds or Sons of Anarchy. It’s deeply personal but the neat part is in the sharing and finding overlaps with each other. Surprisingly, album-creeping on Facebook has presented unexpected travel ideas and networking—from lattes at D’Espresso in New York to a $100-a-plate fish and chip joint in the Yukon to the merits of running a marathon in France.

495
In no particular order, I’ve flushed out my personal seven wonders of the world. With time, I’m sure this list will be revised again and replaced with more marvelous encounters, but at this very moment—these places are deeply embedded in my mind. Come see why.

1. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda

I’ve always been enamoured with Dian Fossey’s brave and brazen attempt to protect the mountain gorillas of the Virungas from poachers. I have the January 1979 issue of National Geographic that refers to her as “Miss Fossey” throughout. In tandem, Miss Fossey and Jane Goodall brought Africa to my bedroom in Brantford, Ontario. Of course, just as every 10-year-old envisions a fancy marine biologist or vet career, I thought I might be a primatologist and observe gorillas eating bamboo all day long. Somehow I became a massage therapist instead (and sometimes massage backs as hairy as gorillas I suppose), but, for one surreal moment, I slept in those verdant mountains of Fossey’s tuned into the echoes of life and death.

IMG_0581

Only 32 $500 US permits are issued per day at Bwindi. Our permits were included in a package with G Adventures—otherwise, they are issued on a lottery basis. The encounters with the gorillas are strictly timed to ensure that they are not inundated with human distraction. The hour begins upon the first sighting and armed rangers are quick to get the group moving out of the area immediately. You can’t help but feel Dian Fossey’s presence, struggle and the patience in her passion.
But that hour? That musky smell of gorilla deep in your nose? The wet jungle, hot piss and humidity stays with you. Being spitting-distance away from a docile silverback and youngsters somersaulting about is a pure wonder. Have you ever held your breath for an hour? Have you ever been so transfixed by your surroundings that the trance feels like a super drug you might not be able to shake? This is Bwindi.

2. Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, Iceland

The guide book warned us that sometimes startled drivers slam on brakes or skid off the road when they come over the rise and see the lagoon for the first time. Despite expecting it, and realizing that we were nearing the lagoon, the sudden appearance of sheer dream-like icebergs bobbing along stops everything dead in its tracks. Your conversation, your mind, the rental vehicle. Wow.

ICELAND 2013 023

On the edge of Vatnajokull National Park in southeast Iceland the 18 square kilometre lagoon is full of calved icebergs making a silent procession towards the Atlantic. The layers of sky blue and black ice make for a photo frenzy. Unfortunately, we had 160km an hour winds whipping off the lagoon and threatening to blow us into the Atlantic as well.
The lagoon has been a Hollywood star, providing the setting for James Bond, Batman and Tomb Raider flicks. On a side note, in the wind shelter of the nearby cafe, we sucked back perhaps the best latte on the island. Though, the view over the latte froth might have greatly influenced us.
Even with gale force winds and bare skin pelted with fine gravel and debris, the magic of that lagoon still shakes my marvel meter.

3. The White Desert, Egypt

We were already high on life after staying at a Shali fortress in the Siwa Oasis. We’d spent days traveling around by donkey, watched the sunrise over the salt flats, drank hibiscus tea and smoked the sheesha pipe by a fire after being buried in a traditional sand sauna. We had eaten camel stew on the rooftop of the fortress under a bazillion stars, soaked in cold springs and discovered a thermal lake. Yes, we were fully spoiled by the makings of a very dreamy time in Egypt already.

682

Of course, we already had knotted stomachs and daily blasts of diarrhea, but, travel can’t be 100% sunshine and lollipops. Oh wait, we did have 100% sunshine and 100 degree days. It was the desert after all. After barreling along unmarked ‘roads’ ( I use the term as loosely as our bowels), we entered the White Desert. The alien landscape is 200 square kilometers of bone-white natural sculptures that resemble hawks, hearts, mushrooms and pythons. Without a guide, you would never find your way out. The silence here is almost overwhelming. Far from any source of light or noise pollution, the White Desert is a retreat for all your senses.

690

After hours of being awe-struck, the pink and tangerine hues that dusk brings upon the stone and sand makes way for an incredible cosmic show. Here, you sleep under the stars and remember how tiny and insignificant your presence is.

4. Bartolome Island, The Galapagos

I had five solid Jeopardy categories that dominated my childhood. Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall, Birds of North America, Pop Tarts and The Galapagos. I made sure my dreams came true the year I turned 30. I was headstrong about seeing the blue-footed boobies, frigates and tortoises that I had become consumed with.

galapagos 1

When I arrived in Quito, Ecuador (flights depart from Quito to Puerto Ayora—a 1,000km flight west to the Pacific isles), I met a charming Aussie who insisted we drink pisco sours and try guinea pig. Something went sour in my gut and I’m not sure who or what to blame. The following morning I had a bowl of entirely raw eggs, so, whether it was the pig, the pisco, the Aussie or the eggs, I’ll never know. Add a huge, rolling Pacific to that mix and I was throwing up most days of the nine day trip. But, despite heaving overboard, I was stunned for nine days straight.
The boobies and the frigates performed and displayed. The animals and birds of the Galapagos have no predators, and, incredibly there is no fear of humans. You can be mere feet from sea lions and iguanas. I was in birding la-la land.

galapagos 3

Bartolome was probably the island that struck me with the biggest wow wave. Like Neil Armstrong said, it’s the closest landscape to the moon that you’ll find on earth. The hardened lava tubes and windswept harshness is nearly unsettling. Barren and beautiful—a sharp contrast to the chain of islands that are alive and vibrating with bird life.

5. Michamvi Peninsula, East Zanzibar

Have you ever felt like you’ve walked into a postcard? The beaches are icing sugar white. The water is so many shades of blue that a paint company could find a whole new line of Indian Ocean tints.
It’s breezy and soupy with African heat. The sky is an opposing mix of brilliant blues and sometimes it’s difficult to determine the ocean from the sky. Sunrises here made me want to write poetry and smoke long menthol cigarettes (not really Mom).

Zanzibar 2014 123

The tide tables were erratic and amazing to witness. At night, the ghostly roar of the waves pushing back in woke Kim up, even with ear plugs. Watching the tide pull out was like listening to the ocean funnel down a far away drain. It was a torrent of water rushing reverse through the tidal beds.
We spent hours squatting by the pools, looking at the black urchins and tiny starfish. Some of the pools were hot tub hot by noon. The water was as clear as the Perrier I’m drinking—no guff.
Here, life revolves around the tides and the flux of fisherman and women collecting seaweed were indicators of this balance. After heading to the Rock for a beer, we learned quite quickly of the speed and power of the ocean as we high-stepped it back to our lodge. The coral cliffs and coral underfooting made for a nervous and grateful walk back. Inlet to inlet the level of water pushing into shore proved that Mother Nature is boss.
Whether you find yourself on a dhow at a distance, on the balcony of the Rock, having a blue marlin burger at Ras Mchamvi or distracted from your book at Kichanga Lodge, the Indian Ocean and its ever-changing “oh-my-god-look-at-it-now” beauty has established the benchmark for all oceans.

6. Masai Mara National Park, Kenya

IMG_0253

It’s Out of Africa in 3D. It’s blonde savannah, blurs of zebras, trumpeting elephants and sun-bathing lions. I had binoculars fixed to my eyes until dark. And at night? Falling asleep in a tent with Masaai keeping watch by a snapping fire and hearing a cheetah in the distance (think of a log being sawn in half—that’s how they sound). This is the good Green Hills of Africa-esque Hemingway life. In the morning the flies are incessant jerks though, swarming your milky tea and dive-bombing the surface until you have a pool of 30 flies in your mug. Oh, and their fly friends are buzzing in your ears and hanging off your eyelashes.

IMG_0119

But, if you can surrender to the fly annoyance and forget about all the red dirt up your nose (where the flies are sometimes too), a safari in Kenya is a bonanza of animals. It’s a full time job to take in all the meerkats and water buffalo and dik diks and impala without rest. Because you don’t see just one—you are bombarded with fauna.

IMG_0180

Before VCRs were invented (or, maybe they were and we were just unaware, content with the old TV aerial and snowy five channels in the country), I used to record Lorne Greene’s New Wilderness on my tape deck. I’d listen to old episodes about this very view in my lower bunkbed. The real thing will make you want to return—physically and mentally whenever you close your eyes.
I can’t tell you how many about-Africa books I’ve read since I’ve been to Uganda, Kenya and the Congo. But, to get in the groove—shortlist these:

The Poisonwood Bible—Barbara Kingsolver
Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight—Alexandra Fuller
West With the Night—Beryl Markham
Land of a Thousand Hills: My Life in Rwanda—Rosamond Halsey Carr

7. Caye Caulker, Belize

234

There are no cars here and this is so refreshing. And, the fact that there is ‘nothing’ to do (hurray!). Kim and I get so lusty thinking about a Belizean retirement. The beach shacks are simple, life is simple and the curries are outstanding. Every single thing we ate on Caulker was instagram-worthy. I’m talking tangy shrimp ceviche, ham and Cheese Whiz waffles, perfect fried chicken and fire-breathing curry from Fran’s. Oh, and then there are the panty-ripper rum drinks to enhance the sunsets where everyone gathers for an applause-worthy show.

193

We spent time on the mainland (Placencia, Cahal Pech and Hopkins Village) and zoomed out on a choppy ride to see the Blue Lagoon and the red-footed booby colony on Lighthouse Caye, but memories of the coral island just 8km by 1.6km wide resonate bigger and brighter.
If you want a break from the wi-fi and masses of people, you can truly live here barefoot. No shirt, no shoes is really no problem. Ever.

172

Okay, so now I get why those distractify lists are always 40+ destinations long. At seven wonders, I’m cutting myself short. My best advice? Travel with someone you adore and can’t get enough of. And, advice to myself? Buy a new hoodie and hat already!

046

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

Beer in a Zanzibar Prison, Petting Tortoises and Spice Haggling

Even though we had 12 days of excessive lounging at Kichanga Lodge, it took some will and mutual prodding to journey southwest to Stone Town for a day. We knew it would be hectic and congested but less grating than the commotion of Cairo (where pedestrians are advised to find local “human shields” to help them cross roads) and Kampala, Uganda (where the main transit hub consists of seemingly a thousand, honking minivans crammed into a dust ball of a football field). Still, we were slightly resistant to abandon our bikini attire and paperbacks for the bombardment of touts.

Zanzibar 2014 442
In 2000, Stone Town was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The decaying core was once a hot bed of slave trade and lucrative spice trading centre. The Arab and Persian influence is obvious in the design—and the ‘doors of Stone Town’ are Zanzibar’s equivalent of a Big 5 safari. In 1866, Livingstone prepared for his final expedition into the interior of East Africa in Stone Town.

Zanzibar 2014 423
The narrow alleys are like a rabbit’s warren. Many of the roads are nameless and too narrow for cars to travel through, though mopeds and bicycles tear through the maze at lightning speed. Many of the buildings are constructed from coral and have long stone ‘barazas’ at the base that act as benches or, when necessary, elevated sidewalks during the monsoon season.
The carved wooden doors are both medieval and outlandish with big brass studs that served as deterrents to elephants. Indian-designed doors are rounded at the top while Arabian style is defined by a rectangular shape. Doors with chains carved into the length indicated a slave chamber, while others with Indian lotus flowers hoped to channel prosperity.

Zanzibar 2014 444
We decided to visit Prison Island before venturing into the hamster’s maze. Finding a boat captain involved simply taking one step on the beach. Negotiations were quick—for $35 we booked a dhow (with a motor) and would be free to return to Stone Town (a 25 minute, nearly 6km ride) at our leisure. The ride across the Windex-blue waters was smooth and not the white-knuckler warned about in the guide books.

Zanzibar 2014 415
Some reports say that the prison was home to rebellious slaves in the 1860s, other references say it was never used—and, though it was designated as a quarantine station during a bubonic plague and cholera outbreak, it remained vacant. Nowadays you can now stay on Prison Island at the posh Changuu Private Island Paradise Hotel for $300 a night.

Zanzibar 2014 389
Here, Zanzibar’s colony of Giant Aldabran Tortoises roam about at a carefree centurian pace. Imports from the Seychelles in the 19th century, tortoises were a pirate’s idea of take-out. The tortoises could survive on boats for long stretches with very little food, and provided valuable meat when necessary. The tortoises of Prison Island were gifts from the Seychelles government in 1919. For $4 US visitors can share space with the ancient and docile creatures. I was surprised at how mobile and active they were. The Galapagos tortoises that I had seen before seemed to be more like stationary sculptures. Here at Changuu, they are in slow-mo road races, often resembling bumper cars as three tortoises vie for one narrow opening between the trees.

Zanzibar 2014 384
I was hoping to find a good tortoise postcard or two to fire off to our parents back in Canada (an unlikely proposition as the African postal system is as reliable as Rob Ford), but when we asked for directions to the “Prison Boutique” we were told, “it is there (pointing to the right), but, there are no things.”

Zanzibar 2014 396
Indeed, the Prison Boutique was long, and possibly forever closed. However, wandering about the ruins was a neat exploration. Especially when we realized that we were drinking beer, in prison. The prison bar (a new addition) was registering sauna-worthy temperatures, so we took our tall Serengeti’s to the edge of the water. If you ever want to have a staring problem, do it here, facing the Indian Ocean.

Zanzibar 2014 404
After our fill of historical jailhouse enlightenment and tortoise intimacy, we went for a dip in those tempting waters. When shiny brochures say “powder white sand beach and bathtub warm waters”—it can be a true. We found tangible proof.
We didn’t return to Stone Town until 2:30. Aside from the House of Wonders, buying some saffron and curry, lunch at Mercury’s and a sundowner at the Africa House Hotel, our agenda was rather loose.
But, do you think we could find The House of Wonders? Freddie Mercury’s father worked in the old Sultan’s palace as an accountant. It was the first place in Eastern Africa to have an elevator (thus, the House of Wonders!). Martyna, the manager of Ras Mchamvi resort beside Kichanga gushed about the rooftop view and how we MUST go to enjoy the suspended view of Stone Town.
Despite our efforts to walk with conviction, we did appear lost in the alleys as I was trying to look at our tiny map on the sly. Nailed. “What are you looking for?” We hoped that we would get a simple answer and a pointed finger south or west.
“House of Wonders.”
“It is just to the right. And then left. I will show you.”
Kim and I rolled our eyes in tandem. In Egypt, no one gives directions, they must physically show you, which also means they would like a tip for their time. Innocent offers to take our picture in front of the pyramids or the Sphinx were disguised as money grabs. “Now you pay me for my time.” We had an all out battle of profanity with one hothead Egyptian who insisted on spouting off all the history of the Sphinx despite our insistence that we didn’t want a guide. “No, no, I am just a friend. I am just telling you as a friend.” Riiiiiight.
So, we had a new “friend” in Stone Town. The right turn, left turn, turned into nearly 30 minutes of a condensed tour of Stone Town that went in a crazy, convoluted circle BACK TO THE EXACT POINT WE HAD STARTED FROM. Oh, and the House of Wonders wasn’t right and then left—it was immediately in front of us. Fenced off, and looking closed and/or under construction, the building itself said “National Museum” on the front, not House of Wonders.
We gave our friend a few dollars, though we were ready to strangle him. Kim gently accused him of taking on a wild goose chase (entirely true). “Why would I do? I take you where you say.” Which, in his apparent direct route went by a restaurant his cousin owned, Persian baths where we could go for a tour, a coffee shop we should stop at (he likes the vanilla milkshakes there—hint)…Kim and I came to a dead stop a few times and communicated via our eyes to each other “should we ditch him?” He was like static cling though, and he had wound us around the alleys so deep, we were like spun tops. I had no idea which way the ocean, our western landmark was, anymore.
“You said you were going to show us where the House of Wonders was.” Kim said directly and exasperated.
“Why are you so tough,” the guy replied and at that point, in the deserted, sketchy alley we were in, we thought we might be snuffed, mugged or defriended. “I take you.”

*Lesson: if you ever find yourself in Stone Town, unable to find the House of Wonders, or whatever, don’t ask directions.
We quickly renamed our venture The House of No Wonders. We had to wake up the three security guides sitting inside. Though the museum was actually closed for “refurbishment” (probably 10 years in the making), they still wanted to charge us $12 US to enter. I said we just wanted a photo from the rooftop. I’ve seen elevators before, that wasn’t a huge deal.
Though I shouldn’t admit this, we were feeling a bit ripped off from our “friend” and the admission fee to a closed site. I stuffed two folded up dollars into the donation box. We took the winding stairs to the top which, at 140 degrees felt like the staircase to Hell. The security guy was right on our heels and when we got to the third floor Kim realized that there was no rooftop access. We told the guard we wanted to see the rooftop and he shouldered a door open for us after unlocking the bolt.
The roof was ready to collapse. We followed make-shift cement block steps to the edge and could hardly embrace the moment with the toe-tapping guard waiting at the door behind us. Kim shook her head—“not worth $12. What a joke.”

I said, no worries, sharing with Kim that I had craftily only put in $2. We enjoyed the view a little more knowing it was at a discount.
I snapped a few shots and we agreed we’d had enough of the city. “Let’s grab a beer and something to eat.”
As we reached the main floor of the empty, cobweb-clad museum one of the dozing guard’s cleared his throat and said, “You only pay $2. Price is $6 US, each.”
Still annoyed from the House of No Wonders Kim played nice and said, “Oh, sorry, we misunderstood—I read the child’s price here which is $1. So sorry.” I fumbled in my pockets trying to find more dollar bills and tried the trick again, adding another three. I stuffed them in the box and we hurried out.
“Let’s go!” Now we definitely couldn’t walk anywhere in the radius of the House of No Wonders for fear that we might be sent to Prison Island for real.
*Lesson: Colossal rip-off even at $5 US. Here’s our $5 picture instead:

Zanzibar 2014 426
We found solace and genuinely good thin-crust banana and pineapple-topped pizza at Mercury’s. Cashing in on Freddie Mercury’s fame, the seaside resto near the ferry dock was not the big tribute I thought it would be. They had maybe a dozen framed photos of Mercury and Queen, a little blurb in the front of the menu and a few cocktails named after songs, but, that was the extent of it. No non-stop Queen blasting from the speakers. Still, as a rabid fan of the group, I felt it was a necessary place to see. And, after House of No Wonders, we could find wonder much easier, elsewhere.

Zanzibar 2014 435
Like, the Big Tree on Mzingani Road. The massive fig is actually marked on the map. I thought it might be a bar or cafe, but, no, it’s a really big tree. It provides shade for over a dozen vehicles and I’m certain a hundred people could circle its base. Now there’s a wonder.

Zanzibar 2014 432
Our last Stone Town goal was to find spices (and avoid museum security and our dear friend). After about 5 minutes of walking down the alley the demands by shopkeepers “Where from? Come look. Looking is free!” almost put us over the edge. Though we were interested in finding some silver rings, it wasn’t worth the battle. I accidentally touched an item and it was an instant attack of “How much you want to pay for this? How much?” The calculator was pulled out and nearly stuffed in my hand. I wasn’t even interested in the carved giraffe or whatever it was, but, the vendor was right on the back of my flip flops. “I’ll make you special deal.”
Kim was ready to make tracks to the Africa House Hotel and claim early seats for the sunset. “Let’s forget about the spices.”
I begged to try just to the end of the alley—we had already gone to Grenada, the other “Spice Island” and come home empty-handed. We couldn’t travel 17,000km to this Spice Island and have no curry to show for it.
I found a spice display and the vendor quickly handed me a basket. I found some ginger tea for my sister, vanilla beans for Dax and my mom, paprika and curry for Kim’s family and saffron for us. The guy hurried the full basket inside and punched away on his calculator. “Euros or US dollar?”
“US.”
“Forty-five dollars.”
“WHAT?”
He showed me the calculator screen and I was flabbergasted. “No way.”
Kim and I laughed at the outrageous amount. Had we thrown in a bag of panned gold as well? I know saffron is expensive, but, c’mon. We did not have $45 of spices.
“No thanks.”
We did the ‘walk of instant negotiation’ and headed to the door. “How much you pay then? How much? How about $40.”
We kept walking.
“What’s the most you pay?”
“$15.”
He let all the air out of his lungs and huffed. “No. $40.”
We resumed walking and were back out in the alley when he shouted, “Okay, $15.”
He still tried to push us into paying $15 in Euros and then conceded. But, he also made use of another nervy tactic by holding our $20US bill, handing us the bag of spices and saying, “okay, and $5 more for me. I keep change.”
We got our five dollars change back and instead spent almost $45 on cocktails at the trendy ex-pat watering hole, The Africa House Hotel.
We eased back into a more relaxed state knowing that we didn’t have to haggle anymore. We found primo seats on the deck for sundown and watched the park below fill with muscle-bound boys practicing a form of Thai martial arts. Another group kicked a soccer ball around barefoot.
We sucked back pina coladas in coconut vessels and I tried the much-publicized Dawa (local gin, honey, lime juice). The drinks are super overpriced at the Africa House, but, it is the best vantage point for sunset. And, the sun put on a blazing, brilliant show. If you’ve never seen an African sunset, you can almost count the seconds and see it dropping—much like the apple at Times Square on New Year’s Eve. It is a true marvel. A wonder, even.
We waved to our driver below and were happy to drive out of Stone Town and back to Kichanga under the spell of sensory exhaustion from warding off touts,  local gin, spice procurement and the rigours of sunsetting.

Zanzibar 2014 450

Categories: Into and Out of Africa, Passport Please | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.