ST. PETERSBURG: The Most Beautiful Northern City of Them All

August 8, 2005 10:53 am
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St. Petersburg, often referred to as the Venice of the North, is truly a remarkable city. Whether during the white nights of summer – the sun doesn’t set until after 10 pm each night from March to late August) or the special charm of the white days of winter (from November 1 to March 31), the city’s remarkable beauty and vibrancy captivates residents and visitors alike. St. Petersburg is truly one of the great architectural wonders of the world.

Founded in 1703 by Czar Peter the Great to modernize Russia’s economy by forming a closer economic, cultural and technical bond with Europe, St. Petersburg was built in only nine years and became the capital of Russia in 1712. The wide Neva River and many other smaller rivers and manmade canals organically blended into the cityscape and determined the size and direction of its main avenues.

Manicured gardens and historical architecture.

After the Russian Revolution in 1917, communists moved the capital to Moscow and changed the name of the city to Leningrad. World War II was not kind to Leningrad. The 1-day Nazi siege is one of history’s great tragedies. Hundreds of thousands of citizens perished from the cold, starvation and bombardment, but the city survived and triumphed. Reconstruction of the city’s industry, public works, museums and libraries began almost immediately after the siege broke. Today, St. Petersburg is Russia’s second largest city. The population currently stands at 4.6 million. The city is growing fast, its historic center surrounded by modern office centres, shopping malls, hotels and hyper-markets, as investment floods in from Russian and foreign banks.

We arrived by overnight train from Moscow. We were in a sleeper car for four, which was roomy and comfortable. The seats easily rolled into beds – with two bunks on top on each side. The cherry red train left Moscow at midnight and arrived promptly at 8 am the next day. The washrooms on board were clean and modern. We were given bed-wear and a snack box with yogurt, fruit, cheeses, meats and oils. The Russian train staff was very friendly and helpful with boarding and un-boarding. (In April, the Russian government announced that a new high-speed train between Moscow and St. Petersburg will be in service by 2010, reducing travel time to three hours.)

The first thing we noticed about St. Petersburg is the clean and modern Moskovsky train station in the heart of the city. (If only we had a centrally located train station in Ottawa!) The coffee bars were busy as we left the station to depart for The Grand Hotel Europe, one of the oldest and most esteemed hotels in the world. After checking in, we met over espresso in the Mezzainine Cafe to plan our day. We decided to attend several museums, but how to choose from among no less than 250 museums in St. Petersburg? The city is rightfully proud to be the home of the Hermitage and the Russian Museum, which are among the largest museums in the world. The Hermitage’s collection of art surpasses that of the Louvre! It occupies five historical buildings in the city centre, including the Winter Palace, once the czar’s official residence. One can easily spend a week taking in all the Hermitage has to offer but our very articulate and informed guide showed us the highlights during our eight-hour visit.

St. Petersburg is one of the great cultural capitals of the world. The only thing that seems to be more exciting that its past is its future, as it undergoes a modern renaissance.
The GRAND HOTEL EUROPE – St. Petersburg
A Member of The Leading Hotels of the World

The illuminated Grand Hotel Europe.

The Grand Hotel rakes up almost an entire city block. Its architecture is drawn from the 18th century imperial traditions of France and Austria. The hotel was the centre of social activity and hosted famous writers, academics actors and royalty from around the world during its heyday in the 19th century. The communists closed the hotel after the 1917 Revolution and used it as a meeting place for the local trade union and as a school for orphans. It served as a hospital during the siege of Leningrad in World War II. In the post war years, the building once again served as a hotel, run by Soviet officials but a pale shadow of its former self. This all changed when the Soviet Empire collapsed. By 1989, the old hotel had closed for reconstruction, reopening in 1991 as the first five-star hotel in the New Russia. By 1995, The Grand Hotel Europe was recognized as the best hotel in Russia and named a member of The Leading Hotels of the World. This excellence was clearly recognized in 2005 when the famous Orient-Express Hotel Corporation purchased the entire property to be in their stable of global five-star properties. The Grand Hotel has seven restaurants, including Russia’s leading fine dining establishment, L’Europe Restaurant. The hotel has a fitness centre, business centre, banquet and conference rooms, Internet hook-ups and all the modern amenities. Then there is just the architectural beauty and history of the place. Oddly enough when we were visiting so was Mikael Gorbachev. The hotel often has celebrity guests and is sensitive to their security needs while ensuring that their presence doesn’t impact negatively on other guests. A member of Gorbachevs entourage told us that of all the hotels he stays at in the world, The Grand Hotel Europe in St. Petersburg is still his favourite!

A Week in Paradise for a Family of Five at Playa del Carmen’s Gran Porto Real

January 8, 2005 3:38 pm
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The week started out great. We put the kids on the Zoom Airlines flight direct from Ottawa to Cancun. Zoom, an Ottawa-based international charter, offers flights and all-inclusive packages to southern destinations. (This year, the Mexican destination is Puerto Vallarta.)

Arriving in Cancun, we are taken on charter buses south for one hour to Playa del Carmen. The main road into town – Avenida Juarez – leads you right to the ferry dock and the pedestrian-only 5th Avenue. Playa del Carmen is truly a paradise. This once sleepy village on the Mayan Riviera is now bustling with Canadian and European tourists who have discovered its alabaster-white beaches, soft blue turquoise surf, coral reefs and slow lifestyle, as well as the very gentle and friendly Mayan people. (The pleasant but much more expensive island of Cozumel is just across the strait.) Playa del Carmen’s dock is the pier for the ‘people ferry to Cozumel, so it’s only a short trip over to snorkel or dive on Cozumel’s incredible coral reefs.

The resort has an incredible kids’ club. Children can join anytime during the day. The kids’ activity reps are always doing arts and crafts or organizing events for children on the beach. The staff is exceptional; the kids just couldn’t get enough of the daily activities. Besides the extraordinary accommodation and services, we found that for the sake of convenience, staying close to 5th Avenue near the Grand Porto Real at 5th & 14th was our best option. We were close to the supermarket, stores, bus station, beach and fast-food outlets serving reasonably priced Mexican fare. The strong European influence in Playa del Carmen has created a unique, eclectic world ambiance. Combine that with a relaxed Mexican-Caribbean feeling and a sprinkling of American free spirits and you’ve got a tropical destination second to none.

Playa del Carmen beaches.

It does not take long to become acquainted with Playa del Carmen. In one day you can get to know the vacation zone quite well.

Most of Playa’s activities involve the water. The beaches are fabulous for swimming, snorkelling or diving. There are numerous dive shops around, and snorkelling, dive and fishing boats ready to take you out.

We enjoyed the marvellous beaches by day and took in the lively nightlife along 5th Avenue in the evening. Clothing stores sell the latest threads from Europe. Cuban cigar and rum stores abound. Most impressive was the incredible selection of silver jewellery made by the local population. There are bargains to be had and enough variety in both selection and pricing. Playa del Carmen has a mellow yet very vibrant atmosphere. At night, the clubs along 5th Avenue come alive.

The farther away from 5th Avenue you go, the cheaper things get. You also will find the best Mexican restaurants not far from 5th on 30th, which puts you out of the tourist zone. In fact, in-between 5th and 30th are all kinds of interesting stores that sell everything; from live chickens to computers. You’ll find banks, money exchanges and pharmacies there. Playa is not that big and everything the vacationer might need is within the tourist zone. Numerous Internet cafes serve great coffees- espresso, cappuccinos and a variety of herbal teas.

Golf can be played on an 18-hole course designed by Robert Von Hagge. An American tourist I met told me it’s one of the best courses he’s ever played. Beachcombers can hike north and make a day of it, relaxing in beachside restaurants along the way. Wear a hat and much sunscreen. Don’t miss the Chaak Tun Cave. It’s on Avenida Juarez several miles down the highway on the right past Alux Cave. You can swim in there.

On day 5 of our trip, we ventured to Xel-Ha (which means ‘where the water is born’). Known as the magical creation of the Mavan gods: Xel-Ha is 60 miles south of Cancun, on the Riviera Maya. It was a safe harbour and port-of-call for the ancient Mayan merchant fleet. Today, Xel-Ha is a remarkable recreational site, where visitors can explore such natural wonders as a labyrinth of waterways and paths through the tropical jungle, lagoons or transparent turquoise, private inlets and coves, cenotes (fresh water sinkholes or natural wells), a cool river which flows through a mangrove forest, multicoloured fish, and a verdant lush jungle.

The Gran Porto Real.

To make these sites more accessible, the park has installed wagon carts pulled by a four-wheeler. This makes the voyage to the river’s entrance a lot faster. Usually referred to as the “train,” these wagons parallel the pedestrian paths, starting near the entrance and ending where the river begins. The train also carries the belongings of those who swim or snorkel down the river safely back to another checkpoint at the park’s center. The park has introduced an interactive swimming program with dolphins that live in the fabulous natural aquarium.

Unpaved paths lead the explorer to hidden inlets, thatched-roof palapas, an ancient wall built by the Mayas, two cenotes that widen into a spectacular waterway with a view of rock buttresses, lush foliage and the vibrant blue Caribbean sky. We decided to journey downriver by swimming and floating in a large inner tube. It was a fantastic two-hour trip- we stopped to jump off cliffs and take in the scenery. As you go downriver, the stream opens up into an equally crystal-clear, turquoise lagoon where snorkelling is a must. The Xel-Ha journey is a spectacular vacation experience. The “Discover Tulum-Explore Xel-Ha” tour makes for an ideal day in paradise, where nature, culture and history blend into a fabulous learning and pleasure experience.

To find out more, visit www.gotraveldirect.com.

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