Posts Tagged With: El Sol Azul

The Best Places We Slept in 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

The  18% Cream of the Crop:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PULLMAN G BANGKOK, Thailand $200/night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2016’s Nightmare Sleeps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Onward: Las Terrenas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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