Sandals Dunn’s River Villagio in Jamaica: Highest Standards for Sun Seekers

December 1, 2007 9:30 am
Bird’s eye view of Sandals Dunn’s River Villagios’ pool area.
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A canopy of lush gardens greets travelers at the front entrance of Sandals Dunn’s River Vellagio in Ocho Rios.

There’s a reason why Sandals Resorts are recognized as offering the best in Caribbean service. We recently visited Sandals Dunn’s River Villagio in Jamaica and experienced first-hand their exceptional service and hospitality. Thirteen Sandals properties are located in Jamaica, St. Lucia, Antigua, the Bahamas and Cuba. Each offers stunning beachfront locations: a choice of à la carte restaurants, from white-glove dining to barefoot elegance; all premium-brand wine and spirits, luxurious accommodations in a range of categories, water sports, wedding services and spas by Red Lane Spas with services and treatments inspired by the region. For truly indulgent pampering, there is also a Butler service.  We decided to go all out and chose the indulgent pampering route, Butler and all. I must say it was exceptional from the moment we stepped off the plane in Montego Bay. We were whisked into the Sandals Welcome Lounge at the airport for refreshments. Moments later, a driver picked us up in a Mercedes town car and drove us the 90 minutes from Montego Bay to our destination.

The drive is beautiful as you weave through exotic villages and pick up the first inklings of the vibrant spirit of the Jamaican people, fiercely independent culture and storied history. Jamaica is an island in the West Indies, 90 miles (145 km) south of Cuba and 100 miles (161 km) west of Haiti. Jamaica is made up of coastal lowlands, a limestone plateau and the Blue Mountains, a group of volcanic hills, in the east. In the early 1980s, a visionary hotelier realized that Jamaica’s best asset was its beauty, beaches and people. It was from this premise that Gordon “Butch” Stewart created Sandals.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1941, Stewart grew up along the north coast, a tropical paradise boasting some of the most beautiful beaches in the world and an area that is now home to four Sandals resorts, including Sandals Dunn’s River Villagio. Stewart started out by opening his own air-conditioning business in Jamaica in the late 1960s and got into the tourism and hospitality trade almost by accident… buying a dilapidated hotel in Montego Bay in 1980 at a time when the tourism industry in Jamaica was recovering from a collapse in the 1970’s due to the misguided policies of a socialist government. With no hotel experience, Stewart decided to approach the business with a simple philosophy. “Find out what people want, give it to them and in doing so, exceed their expectations.” Twenty-seven years later, Sandals has grown into a billion-dollar, privately-owned, Jamaica-based empire that includes 18 Caribbean resorts, Appliance Traders Ltd (his air conditioning and manufacturing company), The Observer newspaper and 24 other diversified companies that collectively form the country’s largest private-sector group, biggest foreign exchange earner and largest non-governmental employer. To this day, Stewart owes his success to salesmanship. He is known as the “Cupid of the Caribbean” and “The King of All-Inclusive Resorts.”

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The Butler service meets guests’ every whim 24 hours a day.

Sandals Dunn’s River Villagio is bordered on one side by a stunning sweep of gorgeous green mountains and on the other by the best stretch of white-sand beach in Ocho Rios. It represents an amazing melding of Caribbean charm and opulence with an Italian Renaissance-style lobby displaying vaulted ceilings, marble columns and an ornate staircase. Sandals carried through the Italian theme to its staff, bringing 24 performers, musicians and chefs directly from Italy. The staff is friendly, professional and courteous. Restaurants, activities and accommodations are exceptional. Our room had a phenomenal beachfront view with 24-hour room service, and every modern amenity you could think of. We decided to go catamaran sailing, snorkeling and ocean kayaking during our stay. The great thing about the staff is that they don’t just hand you the snorkeling gear and say, “see yuh.” They actually go out and swim with you… which if you are a little nervous does much to allay your fears. Our diver would surface with us and describe the coral and fish we were seeing close-up. When we sailed the catamaran, we tagged along with an American couple and a Sandals scuba-diving team member who handled the boat. He grew up in the area and told us much local lore. We stopped and took a dip in the aquamarine waters off a white-sand beach where a waterfall met with the ocean. Simply fabulous.

We returned from that activity and headed to a two-hour rest and relaxation session at the Red Lane Spa… a sanctuary for mind, body and soul that reinterprets classic European spa rituals with a distinctive Caribbean flair. After the spa, we decided to have dinner at the 5 Star Diamond Internationale Room, where international gourmet cuisine is served in a very elegant atmosphere with white-gloved service in air-conditioned comfort.  I tried the surf-and-turf combo of fresh lobster and local beef sirloin. The food was spectacular, and the service was also personable and friendly. Over our five days at Sandals, we dined at several of the resort’s sensational gourmet restaurants: Windies featured the exotic spices favored in West Indian dishes; Ristorante Colombo offered a diverse selection of cuisines. Minutes away, the stage is set each night for the knife-flashing drama of Teppanyaki at Kimonos. My personal favorite was the Marco Polo Restaurant whose specialty gourmet serving is West Indian cuisine in an al-fresco setting overlooking the waterfall pool. A lunch favorite was Ristorante d’Amore, which offered pizzas and other Italian and Jamaican delights. The Il Capitano Romantic specialty gourmet restaurant serves regional Italian dishes. By the beach is the relaxing Pizzeria del Campo, a wonderful outdoor trattoria that serves fine Italian pastries, flavored coffees at Bar del Campo, ice cream at Gelateria Luigi and praline/cotton candy at Mondorle e Zucchero Filato.

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A Sandals Boat rests along the beach.

Each night we looked forward to the theatrical show that the resort hosts for its guests… everything from opera singers to dancers to reggae nights. Each night is a different act and a different show. So much to enjoy – so little time! The Butler service is non-intrusive and works very well. You are provided a cell phone and if you want anything you just hit a button on the cell and the Butler’s Tamon and Omar answer. They will arrange local trips, restaurant reservations, car service meals, towels for the beach, chairs and breakfast service to your room or on the beach and pool deck. Sandals Dunn’s River Villagio is a true haven for golfers. Golf to your heart’s content without paying any greens fees and revel in the breathtaking beauty of one of Jamaica’s most scenic golf courses… even as you thrill to the challenge of some of the most exciting 18 holes in the Caribbean, if not the world. And, just to ensure that your mind is on nothing but golf, golf and more golf—even the transfers are included.

Sandals works with a bevy of local operators who provide an amazing array of fun adventure-type tours.
I must say we enjoyed the Chukka Canopy Tour. It’s basically a zip line hundreds of feet up in the jungle that you can cross in a harness at harrowing speeds (at least for me!). The Chukka line is a new trail through lush jungle in the heart of the spectacular Cranbrook Flower Forest, which leads to the start of this unforgettable zip line tour adventure. (Price per Adult: US$89. To get there you need to take a 30-minute drive through the unspoiled hilly interior where your expedition starts. You literally drive up the side of a mountain. Among the many other options are river tubing with paddle and life vest or the exceptional Mountain Bike Ride high up the St. Ann through woodland and meadows. You begin at the quaint village of Mount Zion to a thirst-quenching stopover at Spicy Grove Tavern, ending at a picturesque cove, carved by nature out of rock to form a serene pool for swimming and snorkeling. After five days at Sandals Dunn’s River Villagio, I don’t think I could get any more relaxed. Yeah Mon, let’s do it again next year!
Visit www.sandals.com for more information.

Petite auberge Les Bons Matins B&B

November 8, 2007 2:03 am
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Thousands of Ottawans visit Montreal weekly for business and pleasure. Montreal has it all, live theatre, music, a vibrant arts scene, and exceptional restaurants in a French joie de vivre culture. On a recent business trip to Montreal, I was lucky enough to have been booked into the Petite auberge Les Bons Matins B&B. While it bills itself as a B&B, it reminded me of a boutique hotel I had visited while staying in Paris. Located in a in a series of adjoining and magnificently restored century-old townhomes in downtown Montreal, Les Bons Matins B&B is just a short hop from the Bell Centre, two blocks down from bustling Sainte-Catherine Street, Montreal’s premiere shopping mecca; and only steps away from lively Crescent Street, one of the city’s hottest spots, where trendy restaurants, cafes and nightclubs abound. You could hardly ask for a better location. Once here, you probably won’t need to use your car at all! Everything is within walking distance: shopping, restaurants and museums… The Lucien L’Allier Metro station is only 30 metres away! This station is a gateway to the Bell Centre, Windsor Station and Place Bonaventure.

A beautifully decorated room complete with fireplace sets a tranquil mood.

The Petit auberge Les Bons Matins B&B is furnished with the finest, carefully refinished antiques. Climb gated iron stairways to your room. The decor is young and vibrant. Hardwood floors, hand-woven Persian rugs and original artworks make for a colorful and welcoming atmosphere. Each room comes equipped with a private bathroom (with shower, bath or two-person whirlpool bath), phone, wireless Internet service (they also have computers with high-speed connection available in the living room near the front desk), color TV with cable, VCR, alarm clock, vanity mirror and hair dryer. My room had a super comfortable queen-sized bed with tasteful and colorful linens, which complimented the wonderful cross-section of antique and modern furniture. The bathroom was a designer’s dream, tiled tastefully with a big Jacuzzi tub. When you enter from Argyle Street, you walk into a welcoming and comfortable sitting room decorated with beautiful works of art from local artists and adorned with fresh cut flowers, fruit baskets and tables that offer an array of pamphlets on what to do while in Montreal. Guests have access to the kitchen for a snack at any time and can also help themselves to coffee, tea, herbal tea, hot chocolate, iced tea and cookies at any time… and it’s all on the house!

Breakfast is served from 7 am until 10 am in a classy and comfy dining room. On the menu are fresh-squeezed orange juice; fresh-ground, freshly brewed French-style coffee; home-baked bread; croissants and pastries; fruit salad made fresh daily; mouthwatering homemade waffles and French toast; an assortment of natural cereals; yogurt; a selection of the finest cheeses and cold cuts; Canadian smoked salmon; homemade jams; and a variety of mouthwatering dishes, such as eggs Benedict, quiche and omelets any way you like, served with bacon or ham are all part of the menu.

Rates are seasonal and there are discounted rates from time to time (from $99 to $199). Petite auberge Les Bons Matins B&B also offers a meeting room that can accommodate up to 10 people. It is available from 8 am until 5 pm and includes two coffee breaks. (With the simultaneous reservation of four rooms (comfort or deluxe) or three suites, the conference room is free for one day.) The spacious room features ergonomic armchairs, air-conditioning, wireless Internet access, white board and sheets and Business Stay. I highly recommend this location for a productive retreat, especially for small to mid-sized businesses and government agencies.

Comfort, class and pizzazz make this one of the very best picks (and best-kept secrets) for overnight stays in Montreal. Book in advance because they do sell out.

Petite auberge Les Bans Matins B&B
1401, avenue Argyle

Step-Aside B&B in the Village of Gagetown, NB

May 8, 2007 6:30 pm
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As we continue in our quest to encourage readers to “See Canada from Sea-to-Sea-to Sea,” we decided to promote a little-known bed and breakfast in the Maritimes called Step-Aside B&B. Here you’ll find the genuine hospitableness and kindness that Maritimers are famous for. After journeying with my son to the Calgary Stampede (see our December 2006 issue), I decided it would be fun to take a quick long weekend trip with him to New Brunswick to see the Bay of Fundy, Magnetic Hill, Moncton Mid Saint John.

I also wanted to take a tour of the Saint John River Valley and visit the Village of Gagetown, which Harrowsmith Country Life Magazine has called “one of the ten prettiest towns in Canada.” Upon arrival in Saint John, my friend suggested we boat up the river to Gagetown, a resplendent summer’s afternoon journey that took us through some of the most scenic-landscapes in eastern Canada.

We arrived at dusk at the Village of Gagetown, a beautiful and charming community that

Step-Aside B&B

attracts boaters and tourists seeking a ‘step-back-in-time’ experience: pastoral scenes of rolling hills, farm fields, apple orchards, cattle grazing on interval islands, sailboats and rowel’s passing on Gagetown Creek, and ospreys and eagles languidly soaring overhead. The total effect makes visitors feel like they have stepped back into the 18th century. The town also attracts people of all ages seeking a great little community to live in. Gagetown has a wealth of heritage properties and two designated historic sites: the Queens County Court House Provincial Historic Site and Sir Leonard Tilley House National Historic Site. A real draw in the summer is a full-service marina and public boat launch ramp. The marina comes complete with fuel tanks, boat rentals, laundry services, showers and pump outs. Adjacent to the marina are a sports bar and restaurant (The Old Boot Pub).

Founded in 1758, the Village of Gagetown takes its name from Col. Thomas Gage, the original grantee. It shares its claim to be the oldest English settlement in the St. John River Valley with Bunon and Sheffield-Maugerville but, unlike them, on the arrival of the United Empire Loyalists in 1783, it was transformed into a well-laid-out village.

Gagetown is also a recognized birding area attracting over 260 species of waterfowl, shorebirds, raptors and songbirds. The marshes, islands and varied landforms surrounding Gagetown are a favourite destination for birders. During the spring migration, the islands nearby become a staging area for thousands of waterfowl, primarily black duck and common goldeneyes.

As we tied our boat to the community dock, we were met by Maurice and Elaine Harquail – proprietors of the Step-Aside B&B. With a spectacular view of the Saint John River, the Step-Aside B&B must be one of the Ten Best Bed and Breakfasts in Canada. This charming hostelry has four bedrooms, as well as a new deck and glass sitting room. It was named after the town of Step-Aside on the Burin Peninsula in Newfoundland. In the 1920s, a tsunami destroyed the town.

The Harquails are the penultimate hosts. A definite highlight of our two-day stay was breakfast served in the sitting room, which overlooks the river. Full breakfasts include homemade muffins, bread, jams and a wonderful selection of egg dishes served up with Maurice’s witty banter.

On our first night at Step-Aside, Maurice insisted that I drop by The Old Boot Pub, for a nightcap, which lasted for hours as the regular patrons and weekend boaters started up a regular down-home Kitchen Callee. You would be hard-pressed to find a pub in Ontario where people meet and have a drink or two and then within 30 minutes pull out the guitars and play the spoons for a real shivaree. Such is the wonderment of the Marinnies’ culture. A hearty breakfast the next morning did much to assist me in the post-pub recovery process.

When in the Village of Gagetown, plan to spend a little time strolling around. The village is home to some of New Brunswick’s finest artists and artisans. You can see their creations in shops, studios and a contemporary gallery. The village offers a guided walking tour of heritage properties and historic sites.

Gagetown also boasts a farm cidery and winery, craft stores outlets, small meat and grocery and liquor stores, a picnic area, cottages and a heritage inn.

A Midwinter’s Bite of the Big Apple

March 1, 2007 10:43 am
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Got the winter blues or a little cabin fever? Well here’s the cure: New York City. David Letterman is right when he calls it the greatest city in the world. It is. Put aside the fact that it is the commerce centre of the universe or that its storied history goes back over 400 years or that the New Yawk accent is almost as good as listening to a Newfie at a kitchen party. The city itself is a planning and architectural marvel and the sights and sounds it offers provide visitors with an overwhelming choice of destinations worth visiting.

The first thing we did was look for a great place to stay (and there are many) that was within walking distance of the subways (the best way to get around New York) and close to some of the attractions we wanted to visit. After some Internet searching, we chose the Buckingham Hotel in the heart of Manhattan. The Buckingham is located on the corner of 57th Street West and Avenue of the Americas, one block from Broadway near Carnegie Hall and two blocks from the entrance to Central Park. Located in the midst of New York’s world-famous cultural district, the Buckingham Hotel was built in 1929 in what is referred to as midtown. Internationally renowned concert halls, art galleries, museums, and schools of art and dance surround the hotel. The Buckingham has a friendly staff and all the modern amenities, including wireless and Internet access, a business centre and concierge, large bathtubs and really hot showers. The rooms are very clean, bright and spacious – designed with a retro look that took me back to the Roaring Twenties. There is no restaurant in the Buckingham, but that is no problem as there are so many places nearby catering to all tastes and open 24/7.

You can drive to New York from Ottawa in about seven hours but this time we chose to fly to get more time in the city. We flew into LaGuardia Airport and decided to take a shuttle bus from the airport to the hotel. The price was $17US per person. The good news is the shuttle goes right to the door of your hotel. The bad news is the shuttle is crammed full of people and you have to do the milk run, stopping at other hotels until the driver drops you off at yours. Overall it was not a bad experience. You see a great deal of Manhattan as you are driven about in the airport shuttle. The cost for two people to get a cab from LaGuardia is about $45US. Bottom line – take the cab. It gets you there faster and it’s worth the extra  $13. (We took a cab on the way back).

We checked into the Buckingham and took a walk around the block. We noticed a place called Nino’s Tuscany Restaurant (at 117 West 58th Street). It looked so inviting and we knew we were in for a treat as soon as we walked through the doors. Try Nino’s seafood antipasti; it’s literally to die for. My partner ordered the pasta with mushrooms and pancetta cream sauce while I tried the smoked chorizo sausage cooked in a spicy arabiatta tomato sauce with linguini. As Italian food goes, it doesn’t get any better than this place. The wines list was both extensive and reasonably priced. The service was excellent. The desserts were home-cooked and the espresso machine and after-dinner drinks helped cap off a perfect New York meal.

The next morning, we ventured out to a pâtisserie and coffee shop on the Great White Way before heading to Central Park, one of the true pleasures of the Big Apple. You can literally walk for miles and not feel like you are in the city. You get in the habit while in New York City of measuring distance by the number of blocks you walk. We walked about 91 city blocks on our fist day, including 30 blocks along the edge of Central Park as we made our way to the American Museum of Natural History. I’ve always wanted to visit this museum, especially after seeing Ben Stiller’s movie Night at the Museum this past Christmas. To fully appreciate the museum, you could probably spend a couple of days there visiting. We decided to go through the exhibits that met our personal interests. For me, that meant going through the Pacific West Coast Indian Exhibits and the Northeast Indian Exhibits. My partner wanted to see the ocean life exhibit. We both wanted to see the dinosaur exhibit and the animals of the world section. The Museum is 150 years old and built in the grand style of America’s Golden Age. We spent about five hours at the museum and could easily have spent another full day there.

Next up was Macy’s Department Store. Walking down Broadway puts your senses in visual overdrive. There is so much to see: the theatres, restaurants, shops and teeming humanity. Mostly you will remember the lights. I’ve never seen so many lit-up places at night. Between the lights and the people there is a constant energy in New York City that is truly remarkable. We felt perfectly safe walking around New York City — safer than we feel walking around downtown Ottawa at night. The police are very high-profile on the streets of Manhattan. The vendors are friendly. New Yorkers are friendlier than Ottawans, I must say. We enjoyed our 40-block walk and made sure we stopped at a pub on Broadway for a couple of pints to refuel before continuing our journey. We were lucky because we had entered an online lottery via CBS for the David Letterman show and were selected to attend. No one was as surprised as me when I got the call the day before we left saying we had been selected in the draw to be part of the next day’s audience. Late Night with David Letterman is at the old Ed Sullivan Theatre on Broadway.

After the show, we dropped by the Carnegie Deli for dinner. This was probably the only downer on the trip. Yes, it’s a deli but it is hugely overpriced – a smoked meat sandwich cost $12.95US. The desserts were also overpriced and not very tasty. It’s the only time on our trip when we both felt like we were being had. However, other smaller delis offer the traditional great food at affordable prices on many of the sidestreets. So, if you want to do the deli thing — go off-Broadway.

On our second full day in NYC, we hit the subway and headed to Brooklyn to take in the Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life: 1990-2005 visiting exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. The subway is clean and cheap. Oh, if only Ottawa had something like this instead of a stupid Transitway. Entry to the Leibovitz exhibit cost $8US and was worth every penny. The exhibit was exceptionally well done, featuring a cross-section of the genius photographer’s public and private works over the last 30 years. The Brooklyn Museum is beautifully designed in the Grand Style and has a children’s area, a cafeteria and public parking. It is also directly on the NYC subway line, which is good, because it’s near a rough neighborhood – but no worse than many Ottawa districts you don’t want to be caught dead in after dark.

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The NYC Rockefeller Centre

Next up was a subway ride back to Chinatown and then a walk to the SoHo District – one of New York’s hippest neighbourhoods, resplendent in the architecture of the Cast Iron Historic District. There are literally blocks of vendors selling every kind of watch and trinket imaginable. It was an incredibly brisk cold day and I was not dressed warmly enough. It only took moments for me to find a vendor who was selling quality 100% cotton sweaters at a very cheap price. SoHo is popular with professionals, artists, celebrities, musicians and the like; it’s a community unto itself, featuring beautiful refurbished heritage buildings, high-end fashion shops, open markets and an array of restaurants offering delicacies from all over the world. We came upon Il Corallo Trattoria at 172-176 Prince Street – truly one of the city’s finest little eateries. The atmosphere is intimate as the tables are very close together, but you still have enough space for private conversation. The food is lovingly made with the freshest and finest ingredients. We arrived at 5:30 pm; by 6:50 pm, the restaurant was full. That says it all. Next up was a visit to Rockefeller Centre. We skated on the fabled outdoor rink under the statue of Atlas. Then we walked around the NBC studios where Good Morning America and Saturday Night Live are shot. As we headed back to our hotel, we saw a restaurant advertising two-for-one martinis for $11US. Despite our state of pleasant exhaustion, we couldn’t pass on that deal. What a great way to end our NYC weekend. New York City really is a wonderful town.

Some Day at the Beach! Destination Weddings: Cuba

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The Wedding Chapel at Paradisus Rio de Oro all-inclusive resort in Guardalavaca, on the northeast coast of Cuba.
Photo: Catherine Sand

When my brother-in-law announced his intention to wed in Cuba, my wife Trine literally jumped for joy. She had seriously considered holding our wedding party on a beach in the Caribbean, so she could get hitched while barefoot in the sand. I was happy too – I like a beach vacation as much as the next guy, but never having been to anything like this, I had no clue about the customs. As we made arrangements to attend, the big question loomed before me: What are the differences between a “normal” wedding and a destination wedding? This was my first trip to Cuba, so I was looking forward to fine cigars, smooth aged rum, crystal-clear water on fine white sand, and the friendliest people you’d ever want to meet. My brother-in-law Jens is a top-of-the-line kind of guy, so he and his wife-to-be Angela had reserved a week at a five-star resort near Guardalavaca, on the northeast coast of Cuba. The Paradisus Rio de Oro is an all-inclusive resort with private beaches and many free activities, including snorkelling, sailing, dance lessons, horseback riding, kayaking, pedal boats, windsurfing, tennis, volleyball and even Spanish lessons. I’m lazy, so I thought I’d just sit around the pool or lie on the beach, but I ended up trying a few things myself. I loved the sailing and dance lessons but a week just wasn’t enough time to try everything!The flight to Cuba was less than four hours and we were processed quickly at the Holguin airport. The resort’s modern bus picked us up for the short drive from the airport. I loved the scenery and all the carefully maintained classic cars on the road. The sight of palm trees waving in the tropical breeze is guaranteed to put you in a relaxed mood. Check-in at the hotel was fast and efficient – good news for us, given the late hour of our arrival.

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Snorkelling is one of many activities included in your stay at the Paradisus Rio de Oro.

Sunday was our first full day in paradise and it was hot and sunny. Mind you, so was every other day we spent there. That’s the advantage of going in the summer; the disadvantage was unlucky fishing – our deep-sea fishing trip turned into a pleasant cruise completely uninterrupted by the appearance of any fish. Our skipper, a bearded Hemingway look-alike, kept the mood light with jokes, snacks and drinks while we chatted away the afternoon on the deck of our chartered motor yacht. A pleasant day for us – and the fish too!

The wedding was planned for Wednesday, so we had plenty of time to relax beforehand. My favourite activity was snorkelling. We saw clouds of tropical fish and beautiful coral formations only a few metres off the hotel beach. We had originally planned to go scuba diving, but we beheld so much on our snorkelling excursions that we never felt the need.

Jens and his three sons were more interested in sailing. Every day, they went out with an instructor on one of the Hobie Cats (a small sailing catamaran) that the resort provides for free. Everybody enjoyed swimming in the ocean several times a day and we would usually hit the swim-up bar at the pool around 4 o’clock. It was a nice place to cool off after a day on the beach.

Evenings were a time to rest after playing all day. We tried all the different restaurants, but the buffet restaurant was our favourite. Flambéed bananas may just be my all-time favourite dessert. After dinner, my wife and I would retire to the lobby bar for my evening cigar and rum. In Canada, I’ve always enjoyed my cigar with a good scotch; in Cuba, I was assured that the only way to truly appreciate the flavour of a good cigar was to have seven-year-old rum to sip along with it. I liked that combination so much I bought a couple of bottles of Havana Club to bring home with my cigars. We would usually watch a dinner show while I had my smoke. The entertainment was the usual cabaret-type stuff: dancing and singing with some audience participation thrown in now and then. I liked the jazz band that warmed up the crowd before the big show. It had a bluesy sound with some Latin flair to spice it up.

This prelude was just like the dreamy holiday experienced vacationers to Cuba have been bragging about for years, but what about the wedding? Well, that could not have been handled any more efficiently. Early in the week, Angela met with the resort’s wedding coordinator to arrange the details, such as the wedding schedule, the colour scheme, and the flowers. This is where I noted some significant differences between this wedding in Cuba and weddings I attended in Canada. We could wear more comfortable attire than usual (a definite plus); there was no need to bring a gift for the married couple (that could wait until we returned home); no driving was required as the wedding venue was only a short walk from the resort; and there was very little prep time (we swam in the ocean until an hour before the ceremony).

We were all very impressed with how smoothly the wedding went. The ceremony was simple, beautiful and over before we knew it! The spot the resort designated for the wedding was gorgeous. The guests gathered next to a gazebo on a point overlooking the water. The sun was shining and the sea lapped against the rocks as we drank free champagne and took pictures of the scenery. We sat in the shade from the trees lining the path to the gazebo and enjoyed a light, cooling breeze off the ocean. I remember thinking how different the setting was from all the church weddings I’ve been to in Canada. The scent of tropical flowers, the clean salt air and the casual atmosphere of people at ease made me wonder why more weddings aren’t held in this absolutely divine location.

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The groom and bride, Jens and Angela, happily married and stress-free.

When was the last time you went to a wedding and wished the service was longer? In fact, my only complaint was that they should have taken more time. I was enjoying myself at the ceremony and then – bang! – it was over. The service lasted only a few minutes (admittedly, the bride and groom wanted it short and sweet) and then we were all feverishly snapping pictures and offering our congratulations. We walked down to the beach to take pictures of the bride and groom barefoot on the sand. Then we relaxed in the lobby bar, drinking and snacking until dinnertime. The reception was held in the more formal setting of the El Patio dining room. Other restaurants are available for the wedding dinner, but the cool, refined atmosphere of El Patio did seem the best choice. After a delicious meal and a few speeches, the staff surprised the bride and groom with a beautiful wedding cake and a violin serenade. We ended the night with another few rounds of mojitos in the lobby bar. Ah, Cuba!

So what is the best part of a destination wedding? Quite a few features kept it from being ordinary, but here is the defining difference: a destination wedding is a holiday for everyone involved. To avoid any semblance of the hectic activity that often plagues a weekend wedding, this event was held mid-week. Plenty of time to get ready for it while enjoying sand and surf. And think of all the times you have helped out after the wedding of a friend or family member. Cleaning up, organizing, transporting – somebody has to do the grunt work after the happy couple leaves. That’s the beauty of a destination wedding – the bride and groom are already on their honeymoon, and all the guests happen to be on vacation!

It puts a whole new spin on the expression “Cuba Libre”! We Canadians felt a tremendous sense of freedom in Cuba!

For more information, contact the Cuban Tourism Office at: (514) 875-8004 or e-mail: montreal@gocuba.ca

By Dale Hovdebo

The Cowboy Trail: A Father and Son Journey to the Calgary Stampede and Rocky Mountain Dude Ranch

January 8, 2007 12:37 pm
Featured

I’ve always dreamed of taking my son to the Calgary Stampede, visit a ranch, and then go horseback riding in the foothills and do some white water rafting in the Kananaskis River Valley. I thought it would be a great father-son trip. Knowing that my 10-year-old son loves the outdoors and animals, I figured he would have no hesitation in going on such a trek. So in July we packed our bags and flew direct to Calgary to do the cowboy thing.

It’s hard not to be impressed by Calgary. Upon arrival, you notice the modern and well-designed airport with well-placed signage and lots of coffee shops and other stores. The cowboy culture hits you immediately as you see local Calgarians walking around in their cowboy boots and hats. It was Calgary Stampede time: a 10-day citywide celebration of everything western, where everyone can become a cowboy. There is western dress, country-and-western music, western food, beer and wine, and western attitude and hospitality.

Fittingly, our Calgary Stampede experience started with a visit to the Alberta Boot Company (www.albertaboot.com). For over 25 years, the company has nurtured celebrities and regular folk who are intrigued by the mystique of the Wild West. As Alberta’s only boot manufacturer, the Alberta Boot Company is proud of its product, but what really sets this outfit apart from the competition is that its hand-crafted, custom-fit cowboy boots are actually manufactured on the premises. Such is the reputation of this boot maker that the RCMP, municipal police forces and military units have become regular clients. Of course, the Alberta Boot Company will provide the same service for anyone who walks through the door. To my surprise, my son was quick to identify some nice-looking cowboy boots and put them on within five minutes of entering the store. They were 100% leather with a solid heel and a comfortable look and feel. These boots were priced at S180. My son insisted he would wear them not only for our trip, but also as a regular day shoe when we returned home. So we got them. He is still wearing the boots and absolutely adores them.

Pancakes curbside at the Stampede Parade

We then headed over to the Alberta Hat Company. We got a close-up look at the craftsmen at work. One of the machines used to mould the hats was almost 100 years old… and the process today is pretty much the same as it was back then. We watched as the hat maker made the White Calgary Stampede hats famous the world over as a symbol of Cow-town. We walked out with two – now all we needed was a horse… and we knew that a steed was on its way.

That night, we tried the buffalo burgers at a local restaurant. The taste was very similar to beef – just a little richer, but delicious all the same. My son and I were both pumped for the next morning’s Calgary Stampede Pancake Breakfast followed by the parade. I’ve been to parades many times, but none comes close to this one. The variety of floats is highly entertaining – everything from mini-fire trucks to stagecoaches and mountain men. The Canadian Forces had a great contingent in the parade with an array of armoured personal carriers and jeeps. The parade lasted a good two hours with nary a dull moment. Each year, the City names a Queen of the Rodeo who leads the parade on horseback. This year, past Queens rode in the parade. There were Queens of the Parade from as far back as 1952 and 1953. So if do the math, you have to figure these ladies are now in their early-to-mid-seventies and still roping and riding. That was impressive.

Next it was off to the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth, with 1,100 events scheduled every year. When an event brands itself as “the greatest,” that is a high calling and Calgary has certainly earned its spurs in this regard. The Stampede Grounds cover a whopping 137 acres. Guy Weadick, a famous working cowboy and vaudeville entertainer, launched the Stampede in 1912. It has since grown to become a volunteer-supported, not-for-profit community organization that aims to preserve and promote western heritage and values, while providing programs that foster understanding of the agricultural industry in Canada’s west. On top of that, it’s one helluva big party.

Milking the Stampede for all its worth

The Rodeo is not to be missed. The Stampede provides the performing cowboys with some of the richest payouts in the rodeo world. From saddle bronc, bareback-riding, bull-riding and the famous chuck wagon races, there is enough rugged excitement for everyone. We were trackside for the chuck wagon racing – a highly skilled sport that requires nerves of steel. There are 32 horses on the track per race between the horses attached to the chuck wagons and the riders running beside them. I think this is where Hollywood got the idea that cowboys were fearless. Then again, if you watch the bull riding, you come to understand the old adage that there is a fine line between courage and stupidity. My son and I were in awe of the bull riders, dedicated sports professionals who have spent years in the saddle to get to this level of competition. We took a tour in the chutes where they keep the bulls. These beasts are big and mean and ready to rumble. The cowboys and their trainers treat all the animals with great respect and it is hard not to notice the bonds between the riders and their horses and their genuine concern for all the animals. We then toured the back gate areas, which encompass all the cowboys’ dressing rooms and on site medical services. Several doctors tended to the injured cowboys, who sustained broken ribs, cracked wrists and banged-up knees. However, the skill set of these cowboys is so high that they are able to avoid most serious injuries.

It you want to find out where Canada’s food really comes from, visit the Stampede Stock Show which provides a critical link between the agriculture business and urban consumers. At Stampede Park, there are hands-on activities for everyone in the family, including hair-raising rides and carnival games at the Great Midway and the nightly Grandstand Show featuring an unbelievable line-up of top entertainers. If you don’t want to take in a show at the Grandstand, then you have a choice of numerous live venues in downtown Calgary. Featured performers this year included George Canyon, The Road Hammers, Alan Jackson, Kenny Chesney, Carolyn Dawn Johnson, Aaron Pritchett and many others. Calgary is the capital of country music during the Rodeo season.

Make sure you visit the Calgary Tower. It actually looks like Toronto’s CN Tower but is not as tall. However, it is tall enough to give you a 360° panoramic view of the city and the Rocky Mountains in the distance.

Calgary has an amazing array of shops, boutiques and restaurants; you will not be hard-pressed to find something of interest. My son and I spent several hours looking for one of the very cool embroidered cowboy shirts that are a favourite of the cowboy fashionista crowd. Junior found a western shirt he could wear for our next adventure: horseback riding at the in Kananaskis Country.

Canoeing on the Kananaskis River

The Kananaskis River Valley is a 90-minute drive west from Calgary. The geographic beauty of the area is incredible and we were excited to reach our destination: the Rafter 6 Ranch (www.raftersix.com). It was common in the Old West for ranches to be named after the brand used. When businessman Stan Cowley bought the ranch, he kept the name. It is now home to one of the largest log structures in the world. Here you will find an authentic, relaxed cowboy atmosphere. The ranch has some modern amenities, but you won’t find telephones or television sets in its rooms or cabins. The Ranch is so authentically Wild West that it has been used as a backdrop for many movies, including The Legend of Grizzly Adams, Across the Great Divide and The Adventures of the Wilderness Family.

My son was very excited to head out for an afternoon of horseback riding. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I was afraid of horses. When I was 12, I was thrown from a horse and had not been on one since. I was also afraid the horse might bite me. Well, next thing you know, my son was on his horse and learning the reins. I figured it was time to pony up, until they brought out my horse, Big Jess. I just kept thinking, why can’t they give me a pony? Big Jess was pretty damn big all right. There were 12 in our group and the ranch hands were really good at explaining the basics of horseback riding. We would end up spending several hours riding up and down the Rocky Mountain foothills and along river bends and up though pastures and forested areas. I was probably so nervous watching out for my son that my equinophobia (fear of horses) vanished. You just need to let the horse know who is in charge, be gentle with the beast and talk to it. You can really feel a bond developing with the creature. The horseback riding was probably one of the greatest enjoyments of my life and it was all the better riding with my son who just loved it. At one point, we came upon an open field dotted with cattle. My son was very excited as we approached the animals. He said: “Look, Dad, there’s a wild cow up there.” As we rode back to Rafter 6 along the Kananaskis River, it started to rain. Thank goodness for those cowboy hats, because the wide brim kept us very dry. We went back to the lodge and had a great meal as our hosts stoked a magnificent blaze. That night, we witnessed a dizzying lightning storm from the safety of the lodge.

The next morning, we were up early to enjoy a hearty breakfast and head out to white water raft the Kananaskis River. The temperature of this fast-flowing river is 46°, so we had to put on wetsuits to ensure we did not freeze when we hit the water. White water rafting in a mountain river stream is one point, we all bailed out to do some body-surfing down the river – protected in our wetsuits as we drifted along. The beauty of the cliffs and mountains as we coasted downstream is unimaginable. My son and I were having the time of our lives.

The hospitality at Rafter 6 Ranch is wonderful; we were sad to leave, but buoyed by our experience. A wedding party was checking in as we left. A young couple would soon marry in the small chapel at the Ranch. I was thinking what a great way to start a life together.

Cowboy hats and "wild cows"

The good news was we were leaving to visit another ranch and do some more horseback riding. We drove to the Brewster Kananaskis Guest Ranch (www.kananaskisguestranch.com) – about a 45-minute drive west of Calgary. With 83 years of ranching, the Brewster family knows how to live the lore of the west. Missy Bigley Brewster started the guest ranch in 1923. It is right next to the Bow River and has both horseback-riding expeditions and a courreur de bois canoe expedition that runs out of its camp. We went horseback riding along the Bow River for several hours. I must say I was not as nervous, except for one stretch where we were riding along a cliff on the edge of the river – which was about 300 feet below us (we were a safe 30 meters from the edge). By now, my son and I felt like pros on horseback.

The Guest Ranch offers overnight trips but we chose to stay at the lodge and enjoy the great hospitality, which included an incredible barbequed meal, bonfire and absolutely amazing country music singer who entertained us until it was time to hit the hay. The next morning, a driver picked us up and we went 20 miles upstream and canoed down the river, back to the lodge in a courreur de bois-type canoe. The Bow is a fast-moving river and paddling was not too strenuous. We saw an array of wildlife, including beavers, falcons, owls and eagles. We arrived back at the camp by mid-afternoon. From June until September every year, guests at the lodge can enjoy golf, river rafting, hiking, group voyageur canoe trips, rodeos and plenty of western hospitality.

Then it was back to Calgary and on to our flight home. What a trip! I think my son and I will both be cowboys for the rest of our lives. I’m also not afraid of horses anymore.We can’t wait to return to Alberta.

Calgary is a boomtown in more ways than one. Billed as Canada’s safest and cleanest city, Calgary enjoys the most days of sunshine per year of any major Canadian city. Westerners call it the Calgary Advantage: Chinooks in the winter account for its great ski culture. The land area is 721.73 sq km (278.54 sq mi) with over 8,000 hectares of parkland and open space within Calgary’s city limits Calgary has the highest percentage of post-secondary   educated citizens (over 60%) in Canada. The population distribution is one of the youngest in Canada, with an average age of 34. Calgary is also the most wired city in Canada, with 67.4% of residents having Internet access. Calgary’s employment rate and per capita income are both ahead of the national average, and there is no provincial sales tax, no capital tax, no machinery and equipment tax, and reasonable property tax on land and buildings. In 2005, Calgary was ranked as the best place in Canada to work by The Globe and Mail which noted that Calgary was second only to Toronto in the number of corporate head offices located there. Calgarians in the corporate world will tell you they are second to none in terms of quality of life!

For more information, contact the Calgary Exhibition & Stampede at www.calgarystampede.com or Travel Alberta at www.travelalberta.com.

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