Incredible Ithaca!

March 8, 2006 10:39 am

After a hiatus of several years from the pages of Ottawa Life Magazine as a backpacking international travel writer, I have returned with my wife Annie, this time as parents embarking on our family’s first vacation to ‘gorges’ Ithaca, New York. Located in the central Finger Lakes Region, Ithaca is a pleasant five-hour drive from the National Capital region.

To test the rumoured excellence of New York State’s road signage, we left Ottawa in the general direction of Ithaca, but did not plot our course on a map. Crossing through Johnstown and Ogdensberg, we followed Interstate 51 to Syracuse. From there, we motored to Ithaca along the scenic southwest routes 11 and 13. The signage is indeed excellent. Effortlessly, we arrived to a warm reception from the hospitable proprietors of the Spruce Row Campsite & RV Resort (

With over 200 tent and trailer sites, Spruce Row offers an abundance of private camping and fully equipped cabins. The resort offers an assortment of paddleboats, playgrounds and hayrides, as well as a miniature golf course and tapered swimming pool. Parents who want to engage in activities with their children have plenty to do. We awoke the next morning, with camp-heads and a hankering for a big American breakfast. We were also keen to explore our surroundings.

Bisecting lush fields and dense woodlands, the winding country roads led us to the Falls Tavern Restaurant in nearby Trumansburg, where heaping breakfasts, fresh juice and plenty of hot coffee are served. We were greeted by the warm buzz of lively conversation and three old-timers sitting alongside a table facing the door. You couldn’t help but smile as they gave our family a watchful appraisal and offered friendly nods. We had an opportunity to chat with one of these sage patrons, after eating a stick-to-your-ribs meal. A fellow by the name of Koskinen spoke with a quiet pride of the community he had “no desire to leave” and described a rich history of ingenuity, diversity and reinvestment.

A busy day at the Ithaca Farmer's Market.

Indeed, Ithaca has enjoyed an abundance of novelty, growth and sophistication. In the first halt of the 19th century, the area had its own railway line (since converted for use as a hiking trail.) Cornell University was established in 1865 as a co-educational institution. We are told that many of the students fall in love “with the Finger Lakes area and decide to settle there. The 1920s saw a booming silent cinema industry spearheaded by the acclaimed Wharton Studios, where the classic Perils of Pauline serials were made. By the end of the 1990s, Ithaca had established its reputation for superb tourism. Today, this wonderful region boasts an abundance of attractions that promote sustainability, dynamic ingenuity and a strong communal network.

Perhaps the most famous acheivement in innovation was the perfection of coffee by Ithaca’s own Gimme! Coffee (, established in 2000. I had the good fortune to experience Gimme! Coffee early on in our visit to Ithaca and noticed that many locations around town were serving this fine brew.

We next visited the Sciencentre ( facility has an abundance of interactive exhibits that promote Science. The monumental Sagan Planet Walk is a scale-model of the solar system stretching over one kilometre to the downtown Commons. Each planet station was designed by local artist Erin Caruth and commemorates the famous astronomer and Ithaca resident Carl Sagan. The Sciencentre is one of eight institutions to visit on the educational Discovery Trail (

Following our tour of the solar system, we boldly explored the historic Downtown Ithaca Commons (, a pedestrian marketplace with an international flair reflecting the diversity of the local population. At a Tliai restaurant, a polite proprietor entertained my clumsy attempts to order a chicken and cashew dish in the Thai tongue. (One could say I was tongue-Thaied!) turns out the server was Laotian.

Shopping alternatives include the Dewitt Mall, Centre Ithaca or Wegmans. While downtown, we spotted the Ithaca version of a police cruiser, a bright yellow VW Beetle. (It may or may not have had a happy-face painted on it!). I took this vehicle as symbolic of the community’s laid-back and progressive manner, while Annie thought it spoke of good taste.

Area restaurants use local produce whenever possible. The 80-year-old Ithaca Bakery ( should be included on any vacationer’s itinerary. The mouth-watering aroma of fresh baking coupled with the immeasurable deli offerings will tantalize and satisfy the various cravings of a hungry family. Glenwood Pines Restaurant ( features a six-ounce Pinesburger served on French bread from the Ithaca Bakery. The Moosewood Restaurant (, home of the famous cookbook, is known for its vegetarian creativity. We regularly stopped at Purity Ice Cream for bountiful scoops made with fresh local milk.

A spectacular view of the falls.

The next morning, we planned an early trip to Ithaca Farmer’s Market, a cooperative of local vendors displaying a plethora of fresh fruits and vegetables, baked goods, preserves, arts, crafts and prepared meals. All products made or grown come from within a 50-km radius. We were delighted by stall after stall of tantalizing curios and edibles. Departing from the pier at the Farmer’s Market, Tiohero Tours ( offers a one-hour narrated tour of Cayuga Lake and provides information about the local geology and history, told through the entertaining yarns of the captain and crew. The tour company also raises awareness of water-quality issues affecting the lake and uses bio-diesel fuel and biodegradable paint on their craft.

The region’s three sprawling State Parks beckon with their network of inviting hiking trails. Guided hikes are offered as well. With our Farmer’s Market picnic in hand. we planned to visit the 66-metre Taughannock  Falls that majestically cut through the soaring shale cliffs of a post-glacial gorge. We portaged our children up the accessible path to the base of the park. A popular tourism slogan, Ithaca is Gorges, lives up to its promise, while the locals love to tell you that these falls are higher than Niagara.

Robert Treman State Park is a tranquil forest sanctuary: 14 km of well-groomed hiking trails wander along the rugged gorge of Enheld Glen and Lucifer Falls. Following our vigorous hike, we took a refreshing swim in Cayuga Lake, loaded up at Wegmans, and retired to cottage life at beautifully situated Williams Ridge Cottages (315-364-8485).

Following the next lazy morning, we decided to shake a leg up at the Finger Lakes Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance ( This annual event showcases traditional and contemporary roots music and is loads of fun for the whole family. Just don’t forget your tie-died shirt and dancing sandals! Just Joking! You can buy it all there! I went from squeamish bureaucrat to bluegrass-billy in no time.

Originally organized as a concert to benefit the local AIDS association, the GrassRoots Festival has grown into a nationally recognized event and is one of New York’s few self-sustaining not-for-profit arts organizations. Today, the festival continues to raise money for the fight against AIDS and other worthy causes, while providing an excellent profile of local and invited artistic talent.

My family’s weeklong vacation wound down, with Annie and I realizing that plenty of other attractions remain for our return visit. As we drove out of town, listening to Blue Rodeo’s Finger Lakes, we noticed a bumper sticker that read:

“Ithaca: 10 square miles surrounded by reality.” This summer, when you and your family need an escape from reality, consider a rejuvenating visit to Ithaca, NY. You’ll be glad you made the trek.

For a complete list of vacation ideas, contact the Ithaca/Tompkins County Convention & Visitors Bureau (904 East Shore Drive, Ithaca, NY 14850; tel.: 1-800-284-8422; The friendly and knowledgeable staff will provide an exciting range of options to suit any traveller’s interests and needs.

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

August 8, 2005 10:53 am

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

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

Awakening the Giant: The Return of Poland

December 1, 2002 8:11 pm

In this issue of Ottawa Life, we begin the first of a two-part series on Poland. That is to say the new Poland – a country with a most intricate history of war and ideological conflict, but also one of sophisticated art and culture. Polish influence extends to Canada and particularly to Eastern Ontario. Poland is becoming a player, both politically and economically, more than most people realize.

In Part I, we explore Poland’s links to Canada and take the reader on a tour of its beautiful sites. Part II will focus on Poland’s rapid economic growth, its ambition to join the European Union in 2004, and its strategic relevance as a NATO partner, as well as the growing importance of Canadian-Polish relations.

The Republic of Poland is about to be impressed on the consciousness of the West. During the Cold War and until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Poland was separated from the West by the Iron Curtain and was a satellite state of the Soviet Empire.

This vital country was hidden from western eyes and ears for decades as a result of its being under Communist rule and Soviet control. Today, Poland is about to make an enormous step into the global arena as it prepares to be admitted to the European Union in 2004 and takes its place as a major player alongside the likes of Great Britain, France and Germany. After all, with a population of almost 39 million people, making it one of Europe’s largest markets, Poland stands to hold a huge percentage of the balance of political power in the EU.

Poland is situated in the very heart of Europe and has played a central role in the cultural development of European civilization in science, architecture, agriculture, music, film and industry. Nicolaus Copernicus and Frederic Chopin were Poles. However, this geographical location that has produced its unique charm has also caused Poland to be a battleground. Poland’s history is marked by turbulent wars and political upheaval, resulting in many waves of immigration as the Polish people searched for peace, prosperity and stability.

Poland Comes to Canada…

By the mid 1800s, during Czarist Russia’s occupation of Poland, many Polish immigrants looked beyond the European continent for places to settle. Canada was a favourite destination of thousands of Polish emigrants. Some Poles settled in the town of Wilno, Ontario (near Pembroke). Even now, Wilno retains much of its rich Polish culture, right smack dab in the heart of the Madawaska Highlands.

Pawel Dobrowlski, Polish Ambassador to Canada, says that Polish immigration is “really the story of Canada, as much as it is the story of Poland:’ What he means is that Canada is a nation built by immigrants. At the turn of the 20th century, Canada took in its largest wave of Polish immigrants. Mainly farmers, this group largely settled in Central and Western Canada and joined in the ranks of the great pioneers who literally built our country from the ground up.

During World War II, Poland once again found itself caught in the middle of the crossfire—this time from Hitler in the West and Stalin in the East. Stalin’s side won and Poland became a Communist state. This resulted in the last great wave of Polish immigrants to Canada. Today, there are about 750,000 Canadians of Polish descent.

Winds of Change —The Poland of Today

Poland has regained its independence and is once again practicing its longstanding democratic and parliamentary traditions. Since the fall of Communism, Poland has made enormous strides in political and economic development. This has as much to do with the sheer size of the country (one of Europe’s biggest) as with its well-established political traditions. In less formal terms, Ralph Lysyshyn, the newly appointed Canadian Ambassador to Poland, really nails it when he says that “Poland is not a little guy and as you take it in the context of European enlargement, whether with NATO or the EU and the other countries joining in, more than 50% of these new members are Poles. You have to recognize the potential of this country.”

Poland is back on track after years of Soviet occupation and is now one of the fastest-growing economies in Europe. Many Poles around the world are now returning to their ancestral homeland. Among this population wave includes international executives eager to do business, as well as tourists looking for something new. The Polish Tourism Organization estimates that tourism will bring in about $4 billion to the nation’s economy in 2003.

Warsaw, Poland’s capital and largest city, is a model of growth and development for other cities in Central and Eastern Europe to follow. Warsaw was blown to pieces in World War II: 84% of the city was destroyed. Incredibly, after the war, it only took 15 years for Warsaw to be rebuilt. The scenic Old Town and Market Square, once turned to rubble, rose from the ashes and once again are the focal point of the city.

Since 1990, Warsaw has again seen a construction boom. Elegant skyscrapers serve as a modern backdrop to the wonderfully restored historical buildings that define the city’s character.

In Poland’s north lies Gdansk, arguably one of Europe’s most beautiful yet little-known cities. Located on the coast of the Baltic Sea, Gdansk has always been a strategically-placed port city and a center of trade in Northern Europe. In fact, during the 16th and 17th centuries, it was one of the leading commercial cities of Europe. In 1919, under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, the city was established as the administrative center of the free city of Danzig, a territory 1,953 square kilometres (or 754 square miles) in area, under the control of the League of Nations. With sovereignty, Gdansk (or Danzig as the Germans called it) developed its own unique liberated character. But Gdansk’s freedom was short-lived. In 1939, the German government incorporated Gdansk into the Third Reich. After the war, Gdansk was awarded to Poland and by 1970, had become the center for protest against the country’s Communist government. Poland’s Solidarity labour movement came to life in Gdansk.

Through the years of the Cold War, Gdansk always managed to retain its character as a “free city.” With its rich history, narrow, winding streets and gabled houses with open-air balconies of carved stone, Gdansk is regaining its reputation as one of Europe’s most magnificent destinations.

The city of Cracow lies near the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. Cracow was built by many generations of artists living in the Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque and Art Nouveau times. Fortunately, Cracow was spared from the chaos and destruction of the Second World War. Dominated by the Renaissance Royal Castle and Main Market Square (often referred to as “the largest European society salon”), Cracow is perhaps the most beautiful gothic city in the whole of Europe. Even today, Cracow still retains an artistic flair and is regarded as the cultural capital of Poland.

Near Cracow are the Wieliczka Salt Mines, which made UNESCO’s First World Cultural and Natural Heritage list. The mine is more than 800 years old, with 300 kilometers of tunnels. What is truly unique about the mine is that it shelters several chapels, including the Chapel of the Blessed Kinga. Everything in this huge chapel is made of salt: the ceiling, the floor, the side walls, the chandeliers and the three altars.

As Poland grows in international stature, these places will become better known. Poland is now being called “an awakening giant.” When it joins the EU next year, it will be one of the big club’s largest countries and fastest-growing economies.

By: Peter Gill

Barbados: The Diamond Island of the Caribbean

January 8, 2002 12:18 am
blue horizon hotel barbados exterior

Steeped in British history, Barbados is the most modern and sophisticated of all the Caribbean Islands. Barbados has a highly educated population and one of the highest standards of living in the British West Indies. Living as they do in a Parliamentary democracy, Bajans are spiritual people with over 35 religions for the 262,000 population. The Anglican Church is most predominant, but there are Muslims, Catholics, Jews and other faiths on the island. The Jewish Synagogue in Bridgetown dates back to the 17th Century. Barbados has churches peppered throughout the island. Next to these small churches, one can usually find a local rum shack. It is a source of amusement on the island that both the church and the rum shacks serve spirituality – just different types – depending on where you are sitting! Barbados has a highly sophisticated telecommunications base and a tourism sector that is second to none.

When travelling from Canada, there are direct flights from Toronto to Bridgetown via Air Canada. A number of charter options are also available. If you are looking for accommodation for business or pleasure, we recommend Gems of Barbados ( Gems have four hotel properties on the island: The Savannah, Blue Horizon, Silver Rock and Time Out at the Gap. The properties are superb and the prices very reasonable. All sites have very hospitable, friendly and knowledgeable staff.

The Savannah

One of Barbados’ most sophisticated hotels, the Savannah combines modern conveniences with the charm of a bygone era. The Savannah’s antique mahogany furniture and four-poster beds create an elegant ambiance, while data port and satellite television in every room provide guests with contemporary luxuries. The new wing offers 80 guestrooms, including nine luxury duplex and ground level suites with direct beachfront access. Features here include two freshwater pools with a cascading waterfall, a spacious fitness centre and a day spa.

The Savannah's dining area.

Situated on a hill topped by the historic main house, the Savannah’s new wing slopes gently toward the ocean and offers lovely sea or garden views. Nature enthusiasts can enjoy on-site turtle nesting, as well as a beautiful waterfall and meandering freshwater pools.

Located on the island’s south coast near the capital of Bridgetown and Barbados’ nightlife in the St. Lawrence Gap, the Savannah is an ideal spot for vacationers. Guests can enjoy fine international cuisine enhanced with Caribbean flair at the Boucan Wine Bar and Restaurant. Live entertainment is featured during the popular Sunday brunch.

The hotel’s refined atmosphere, modern amenities and proximity to the airport make it a perfect match for business travellers. High-speed Internet connections are available in all rooms, and suites are equipped with printers and fax machines. Sophisticated conference and business centre facilities are elegantly decorated and feature the latest technical equipment to assist business travellers in executing a successful event. The new 2200-square-foot conference facility can be arranged to suit individual needs, with seating available for up to 200 for large and small conventions and banquets. The Savannah also has a full-time events coordinator who can help you with any special occasion, whether an important meeting or your wedding day.

Blue Horizon

Blue Horizon will delight guests with its colourful ambiance and tropical charm. Surrounded by a lively decor and warm, friendly staff, guests at Blue Horizon are given the royal treatment with special island flair.

Located opposite one of the south coast’s most renowned beaches, Blue Horizon is a stone’s throw away from the island’s vibrant nightlife and conveniently close to the airport and Bridgetown, the capital city of Barbados.

A range of restaurants, shops and activities are located within a short walking distance from the hotel. For those who would rather not leave the hotel grounds, a small shop is located on the premises, offering many of the essentials for an island vacation.

Delicious local specialties are available at the hotel’s Courtyard Restaurant, where an innovative combination of Creole and local cuisine is served on a spacious outdoor patio by the pool. The Courtyard is perfect for casual daytime lunches while basking in the tropical sun, or romantic evening soirees under the stars. Theme nights are also offered, highlighting a variety of international cuisines. The largest of the Gems of Barbados properties, Blue Horizon offers two freshwater pools and conference facilities that can accommodate up to 40 persons theatre-style. The business centre also offers Internet and fax services. Eighty rooms offer full kitchen facilities.

Silver Rock

Silver Rock’s beauty and secluded location offer a perfect blend of solitude and adventure. At this renowned windsurfing haven, the lively surf provides the ideal environment for active vacationers, while Silver Rock’s breathtaking ocean vistas create the perfect setting for romance.

The beautiful beachfront property features 70 rooms, including a honeymoon suite with two private ocean-view balconies. Located on a sparkling white sand beach, Silver Rock also boasts a freshwater pool and poolside bar. Guests can enjoy the tropical sun and refreshing ocean breezes while dining on Jibboom’s open patio, or relax while enjoying the evening’s entertainment under the stars.

Silver Rock’s beach is internationally known for its excellent windsurfing conditions and the hotel is an established haven for the sport. In addition to windsurfing, Silver Rock offers a variety of outdoor and beach activities, including kite surfing, boogie boarding, hiking, beach volleyball and kayaking. Silver Rock’s special program for children allows parents to spend quality time alone, with the knowledge that their little ones are safe and properly supervised. Each day, a new theme or activity is offered. The day’s events are designed to engage children in wholesome activities that are also fun-filled and educational. Dining is a mix of Caribbean and international cuisines, and seafood nachos are a favorite specialty.

Time Out at the Gap

Time Out at the Gap is Barbados newest hot spot for the young at heart. Located in the centre of the exciting St. Lawrence Gap area, Time Out offers the ideal combination of sun, surf and sizzling nightlife.

Time Out at the Gap.

Time Out at the Gap’s 76 air-conditioned rooms offer a range of accommodation options to meet a variety of needs. With the beach directly across the road, guests can choose between luxurious white sand and the hotel’s freshwater pool, situated in a tropical garden. Time Out encourages its guests to explore Barbados, offering access to tours and activities through its “Out and About” shop.

At Time Out’s Whistling Frog Restaurant and Sports Pub, pub-style dining is combined with entertainment and games to enliven the dining experience. We recommend you try the island specialty here, pepper pot soup. Four multi-screen televisions and a large-screen TV animate the bar. Special hotel events like the Friday Night Street Pub feature music for dancing, with tasty Bajan fishcakes and other specialties cooked on the spot. It is the perfect opportunity to mingle with other guests and meet friendly locals. Guests are also welcome to explore a wide variety of nearby restaurants, bars, nightclubs and shops.

We Recommend

OISTIN’S FRIDAY NIGHT DANCE – Definitely a hi-lite of our trip to Barbados, the Friday night fish-fry, rum-up and dance party begins at around 8pm. Bajans from the fishing village of Oistins gather in the dock area for a fried fish and rum supper. As the evening progresses, the crowds get larger and an open street party/dance takes shape. It carries on often until just before sunrise. It’s an amazing cultural fete, held weekly, and tourists are welcome to join the party.

ISLAND SAFARI TOURS – Take a Land Rover jeep, fill it with tourists and drive all over the island for the day. The Bajan drivers are excellent tour guides and this eight- hour jaunt of Barbados takes you through the jungle terrain, into the sugar cane plantations, across the coastal roads and up to the world-famous surf beach at Bathsheba. After Stopping for a 40-minute break on the cliffs off the east coast, the safari heads into Holetown for a Bajan lunch. It makes for a long day- but you will really have a sense of the geography of the island after the tour with Island Safari. The drivers explain the local customs, food and traditions throughout the day. If you have a bad back – don’t go – some of the terrain is rough – but it’s an adventure not to miss. To find out more, visit

THE WATERFRONT CAFE in Bridgetown is directly across from the Parliament Buildings, set alongside a picturesque pier in the heart of the city. The cafe features loud music, spicy food, and big bold flavours that conjure up the Caribbean.

NANIKI RESTAURANT – Naniki provides the ideal alternative to the everyday bustle and grind… serving authentic Caribbean dishes, using healthy, organically-grown foods when available. Naniki is a little off the beaten track (a 20 mile drive from Bridgetown) to the freshness of the country and one of the best views anywhere in the Caribbean. The view from the patio of the restaurant is simply breathtaking. The menu is superb. The flying fish is served grilled with Creole sauce. Other menu items include Corn Meal, Breadfruit or Green Banana Cou-Cou, Bread Pudding- Pickled Lambie (Conch), Pepper Pot Soup – Ackee & Saltfish. We tried the sea egg and callaloo, a local delicacy. The service was friendly and the ginger beer went well with the relaxed atmosphere. For more info, email:

THE SAND DOLLAR RESTAURANT is located at the Bagshot House Hotel on a mile of pink coral sand on the St. Lawrence Coast. Bagshot House combines an informal, comfortable atmosphere with personal service. Bagshot boasts superb swimming in the island’s only natural lagoon, ideal for children and adults of all ages. Breakfast, lunch and tine dining on the ocean features international favourites, seafood and Bajan delicacies. We tried the conch – it was served baked with a light smattering of vegetables. Rum raisin ice cream and cappuccino rounded off the meal. The service was efficient and very friendly. The owner of the Sand Dollar and Bagshot House Hotel is Aubrey Gomes, a transplanted Canadian who has a very loyal clientele. There are lots of repeat visitors, vear after year. Recreation and nightlife abound within walking distance. We highly recommend the Sand Dollar Restaurant, for more info visit

Shopping in Bridgetown at Cave Shepherd – duty free goods, products from around the world. You’ll want to spend at least a day in Bridgetown, touring and shopping. Be sure to spend at least a couple of hours in the Cave Shepherd store- a sort of Baton’s of Barbados.

Barbados Facts

Bridgetown is the capital and principal commericla centre. Founded in 1628, it has a population od 80,000 and is Barbados’ largest and liveliest city. In Bridgetown, one can find Lord Nelson’s Bronze Statue- at Trafalgar Square. Erected in 1813, 27 years before the British erected a similar statue in London. Bridgetown is also the location of the third oldest Parliament in the Commonwealth.

Located about 200 yards from Broad Street. It is believed to have been in existence since the 17th century.

The Barbados Museum.

The repository of the island’s history, the Barbados Museum houses an excellent collection of furniture, glassware, birds, fish, books, and other records of the island. The Museum is located at the Garrison in the old military detention barracks, erected in 1853. It is maintained by the Barbados Museum and Historical Society.

This was the residence of the General commanding British Troops in the West Indies. Prior to the succession of Queen Victoria, it was known as “King’s House”. Upon the withdrawal of the British regiment from this island during the early 1900s, it was taken over by the Vestry of St. Michael and turned into a park. Opened on the 10th of June 1909, it now falls under the National Conservation Commission. In the grounds of Queen’s Park is one of the largest trees, if not the largest tree in Barbados. This is a baobab, 61 years old. The baobab is a native tree of Africa; no one ever knows how it got to Barbados.

Originally called James Town, this is the site of the first landing made in 1625 by the crew of the ship Olive Blossom. A monument commemorates the landing.

An underwater park where marine life can be viewed from glass-bottom-boats. At the park, there is also a small marine museum of photographs, artefacts and specimens of marine life.

The church stands on the edge of a cliff, which affords a magnificient view of the island’s East Coast. The present building is 150 years old, although there has been a church on this site since the 17th century. The tomb of Ferdinando Paellologus, a descendant of the last Greek Emperor, is situated in the graveyard.

On the South Coast was once a major seaport. It was here that Royalist Barbadians grudgingly pledged their allegiance to Oliver Cromwell and his government in 1652. It is the principal fishing port and the site of a major fish market

Sam Lord's Castle.

25 km from Bridgetown, Sam Hall Lord, one of the island’s most colourful characters, built the Castle. It is reputed that Sam Lord placed lanterns in coconut trees to lure passing ships onto nearby reefs. The ships were then looted and the booty stored in tunnels under the Castle. Now a luxury hotel, it features beautiful grounds and carefully restored furniture and paintings.

It is believed that Harrison’s Cave is the only cave in; the world where running water is found along with: colour crystal-like formations. The cave has large chambers, stalagmites, stalactites, lakes, streams and waterfalls.

The second largest town on the island. Formerly known as “Little Bristol” because of the heavy sugar traffic with that English town. It was eventually renamed after William Speight, a member of Governor Hawley’s Parliament.

The Crop Over Festival
A folk festival, which originated on the sugar plantations, “Crop Over” was then, as it is now, a means of celebrating the end of a hard-working sugar cane season. The three-week festival runs from mid-July to early August. It is a lively showcase of all facets of Barbadian culture, a fluid blend of African revival and western modernity. Activities include a King and Queen of the Crop competition, street malls, stilt walking, art and culinary exhibitions, and the “Pic-o’-de-crop” Calypso Monarch competition.

Congaline Festival
Congaline Festival was first staged in 1994 and is recognized locally as the “World’s Greatest Street Party”. It is held on the South Coast, attracting hundreds of locals and visitors alike. It begins during the last week of April and culminates on May Day. This festival has recently been modified as a music festival of African Diaspora.

Barbados is the only country, which boasts a “landship” movement- a navy that never goes to sea. Established over 100 years ago, through the initiative of Moses Wood, a retired seaman, the fleet is commanded by an Admiral and has incorporated all the ratings of the British Navy. The Club House is the Ship that always carries the prefix BLS (Barbados Landship) before its name. The ship’s crew wears uniforms similar to those worn in a professional navy, and are trained and disciplined in the manner of the military. The language of “Jack Tars” is used. Their manoeuvres are gala affairs, packed with excitement, rhythm and movement.

The Queen’s Park Gallery and the Grande Salle at the Central Bank are two of the exhibiting professional galleries. There are now a number of privately-owned galleries as well.

“1627 and All That…” is held at Tyrol Cot every Thursday evening. There is folk dancing and music. It can be described as the history of the island of the island as told by the dancers.

“The Plantation Tropical Spectacular II” – Another evening of folklore, music, song and dance, depicting aspects of Caribbean life.

The Troutbeck Experience

November 8, 1999 9:45 pm

Text and images by: Katharine Fletcher

Deep in New York State’s Hudson Valley, there’s a home away from home, beckoning.

Snuggled in your wing chair across from a crackling fire, your eye is greeted by rows of books clustered along wooden shelves. Magazines sprawl across a coffee table, before a comfy sofa. The door of the game room is ajar, and the murmur of voices emanates from the ongoing poker game. You hunker down, cozy in your cocoon.

Idly glancing at your watch, you realize you have time for a swim or stroll and a before-dinner drink at the open bar.

You opt for a stroll. Out you go, into the hushed landscape of Troutbeck’s muted colours and sounds.

Leaving the English-style manor house behind you, you follow the bend in the private road. Just before venturing along the nearby “beck” — the brook once filled with trout which gave the inn its name — you spy a historic sign.

It tells you that Troutbeck was the former home of Myron B. Benton, “poet-naturalist, friend of John Burroughs, Emerson and Thoreau.” Images of Walden Pond leap to mind. The sign fails to inform you that this site welcomed the founders of the black movement, including Booker T. Washington, who helped form the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP).

Perhaps now, as you walk, you’ll wonder if Emerson and Thoreau lingered on a stroll just like yours, today, over two centuries later. The sharp, cool scent of autumn pierces such reveries, and draws you onward.

Falling leaves swirl softly about. Suddenly invigorated, you start kicking at the piles of leaves, reliving that time-tested, joyous childhood pastime. Just possibly you’ll break into a laughter-filled, heady run and, as your feet fly, you’ll breathe in the cool, still air.

The sheer beauty of these eastern woodlands catches you. Here and there, tucked away in the woods, you’ll discover private homes straight from the pages of Architectural   Digest. For like many international inns and retreats, Troutbeck’s ample acreage is a refuge for a private community. The artful architecture and gracious settings provide ample inspiration for you… for if you are like us, you’re always on the lookout for great gardening or deck ideas for your own home.

Returning to your room, you’ll marvel again at its unlocked door. There are no locks here and this lends an unexpected charm to Troutbeck, for once you’ve crossed the threshold into its serene world, you have entered a gentler, easier time.

But now the pool beckons… grabbing your swimsuit, you return outside, walking the short path to the outbuilding. Once you’re there, you’ll recognize that it’s also the greenhouse! Plants and flowers provide welcome green borders to the turquoise water. How many laps are you up to? No one will be watching, no one will be counting, so take your time. Try floating in this interior, green world and let your mind focus on the superb meal awaiting you.

Typical meals at Troutbeck include fresh, seasonal and local produce. Who knows what Chef Robert A. Timan will be planning for tonight?

Consider these possibilities… (and do some more laps of the pool, first). A typical dinner menu might include wild mushroom bread pudding; mesclun with spicy walnuts, Anjou pears and champagne vinaigrette; followed by an entrée of ginger marinated duck breasts with a rhubarb chutney.

Dessert? How can you demure? After all, this is a holiday, so surely you’ll test the bittersweet chocolate cake, triple lemon tart, or warm polenta soufflé cake with a molten centre… We dare you to resist.

Whether you opt for dessert or not, the ambiance of the dining room is enchant ing. Candlelight flickers on its exposed, stone walls while leaded glass windows reveal the last glimpses of garden for the evening. Eventually, the old glass shimmers, reflecting candlelight, glass and silverware. Troutbeck is charming, easy, relaxed. Go. You’ll love its gentle ways.

That’s Troutbeck for you, just a bend down the road from Amenia, New York, hidden in the Hudson River Valley’s gentle hills and dales.

What else is there?

The Hudson Valley is packed with intriguing finds. Fine gourmet cooking classes from world-class chefs, antique shops, galleries, historic homes… browse the Internet at:, or write to: Vintage Hudson Valley, c/o Maren Rudolph, P.O. Box 288, Irvington, NY 10533; tel: (914) 591-4503; fax: (914) 591-4510; e-mail:

Spooky Hudson Valley Sidebar

“If I could but reach that bridge,” thought Ichabod. “I am safe.” (from ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ by Washington Irving)

“But the headless horseman relentlessly pursued him on his jet-black steed. Urging his mount to gallop faster, terrified Ichabod sped through the darkness trying to outrun the horrifying spectre.”

Such is the imaginary stuff of legends and horror… or is it?

Especially come Hallowe’en, it is easy to let our minds wander fancifully, to imagine that sprites and goblins people winter’s approaching dark nights…

American writer Washington trying loved the Hudson Valley so much that he penned the spooky ‘Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ near his home, north of Tarrytown, New York. Here, too, he wrote his other beloved masterpiece, ‘Rip Van Winkle.’ His home, Sunnyside, remains as a heritage treasure enjoyed by thousands of visitors yearly.

When in the Hudson Valley, visit Sunnyside, the 19th-century home of Washington Irving, near Tarrytown. For more information, call (914) 631-8200.

If you go

Troutbeck is a 71/2-hour drive from Ottawa…and a mere two-hour drive from Manhattan if you want to coordinate a business-and-pleasure trip to the Big Apple.

For information on the inn, and detailed instructions about the drive, check out the Troutbeck website at or e-mail general manager Garret Corcoran at

ADDRESS: Troutbeck, Leedsville Road, Amenia, NY 12501. Telephone (914) 373-9681 or tollfree at 1-800-978-7688,Fax is(914)373-7080.

RATES: $650 to $1.050 US for a weekend, NOTE: a 10% reduction is offered on the US dollar for Canadians. Take note that the price is all-inclusive and includes six meals, an open bar (complete with superb single malt scotch), use of the swimming pool, fitness centre, volleyball, basketball and tennis courts, friendly poker table, video library and 12,000 books.

Victoria’s Butchart Gardens

September 8, 1999 9:42 pm

By Katharine Fletcher; Images Eric Fletcher

Fragrance, colour, and delight await you at this old quarry site.

It all started in 1904 with the gift of some sweet peas and a single rose.

Little did Jennie Butchart realize that when she planted them beside her brand-new home just north of Victoria, B.C., that it was the start to today’s internationally renowned Butchart Gardens.

Over a million visitors annually marvel at her flowery legacy that rambles over the family’s 130-acre estate. The remarkable variety of landscaping styles includes a formal Italian garden, a rose garden, Japanese garden and our personal favorite, the sunken garden.

Perhaps we are attracted to it most because of the creative transformation that sunken gardens represent, for they are located in what was once Robert Pim Butchart’s limestone quarry. Or perhaps the very name “sunken garden” invokes a sense of mystery and surprise…

Whatever the reason, the sunken garden juxtaposes many delightful nooks and crannies with breathtaking vistas that, in the tradition of all superb landscape designs, seem to be effortless if not “natural.”

Ross Fountain Butchart Gardens.

But anyone who knows their origin marvels at them. Anthony Everett has worked at the garden for several years in various capacities. He revealed some of the sunken gardens’ secrets to us as he escorted us along their winding pathways. Jennie Butchart worked especially hard at this section of garden. Everett assured our never-ending admiration for her when he told us she was “lowered by ropes over the edge of the quarry, in a bosun’s chair” so that she could tuck soil and then ivy plants into the walls of the old pit.

Unfortunately, no photographs exist of Jennie suspended in her chair. We can only imagine a long-skirted, Edwardian figure industriously creating what has now grown into a green, living cascade of ivy drapery. What vision she had! It included a realization that Victorian residents and visitors alike would enjoy coming out to Benvenuto (as she and her husband called the estate) for an afternoon stroll and tea. By 1915, she served tea to 18,000 people. Nonetheless, the family did not start charging admission to what became known as Butchart Gardens until 1941, when adults paid a quarter and children 10 cents!

Prices have risen and now visitors can purchase their afternoon tea, lunch or dinner in what was once the Butchart’s residence. In fact, we just enjoyed a delectable luncheon in mid-June, served by attentive staff in the airy conservatory room. Overlooking the formal Italianate gardens built upon the original estate’s tennis courts, this room creates a light-green sanctuary. We can hardly imagine a more delightful setting for lunch.

Personally, we have a very special love for Butchart Gardens. We first visited the place on our honeymoon 20 years ago. Whenever we’re in Victoria, we return here and rediscover tranquillity, gleaning many tips about gardening and flower species as we wander the wending paved footpath.

Because the gardens are open 365 days a year, we’ve discovered many types of plants that enjoy different conditions and which flower at different times of the year. This June, a lupin-like spire of blossoms in pale yellow and orange riveted our attention. By glancing at the handy pamphlet entitled Flower Guide to the Butchart Gardens, we discovered that we’d found the fox lily, a species hitherto unknown to us.

Butchart Gardens Sunken Garden.

As avid gardeners, we find ourselves inspired not just by the wide variety of plants here, but also by their artistic composition. Sky-blue and midnight-blue delphiniums rise majestically behind powder-puff pink peonies. Fragrances headily spice the air… and even the trellises that support bowers of climbing roses and wisteria are pretty, for they are molded and carved out of cement to resemble branches. Indeed, since the quarry once supplied limestone for the Butchart’s Portland Cement enterprise, these trellises fittingly echo the family history.

If the gardens themselves are not enough to compel you to linger, the entertainment will invite you to do so. From June 15 to September 15, there is music to enjoy; from July 3 to September 4, there are fireworks to marvel at. Families are welcome and you can take a blanket and picnic basket, and spread out on the lawn to enjoy the show.

There’s always something to tempt us to return to Butchart Gardens. Last December, we found ourselves wandering around the grounds, which were fantastically illuminated by thousands of Christmas lights. We marvelled once more at our beloved Sunken Gardens whose quarrv walls were covered in tiny royal blue lights set to mimic waterfalls. All the while, as we explored, the sounds of carolers singing such standards as Silent Night wafted through the air.

We’ll never tire of these gardens. Whether or not you have a green thumb, whether you possess a perennial bed or a patio pot, we’re sure you’ll find this wonderful spot an oasis of beauty, fragrance and colour.


A scenic 30-minute drive from Victoria. Open year-round, seasonal rates and times. Write for information to: The Butchart Gardens, Box 4010, Victoria, BC V8X 3X4: tel: (250) 652-4422; fax: (250) 652-3883; e-mail:; Internet:

As noted, we have repeatedly visited the gardens and have enjoyed afternoon tea, lunch and dinner on various occasions. All are superb. We recommend that you reserve. Different entertainment is also offered year-round and “A Victorian Christmas” spent in the capital of British Columbia and at the Butchart Gardens is a “must-see” attraction.

Spruceholme Inn: A Victorian Holiday Retreat

January 8, 1999 9:31 pm

By Katharine Fletcher; Images Eric Fletcher

Whether you want a quiet getaway during the holiday season or an elegant Victorian New Year’s, consider spending a night or two at historic Spruceholme Inn.

Located in the village of Fort Coulonge in West Quebec, it’s less than a two-hour drive from Ottawa. Worries and stresses of the city and work slip away while you drive west on Highway 148. You’ll enjoy arresting views of the Ottawa River as well as glimpses of undulating farmland, prosperous homes and swathes of dark woods.

George Bryson, Sr. was one of the Ottawa Valley’s most successful lumber barons. After building his own estate, he built not one but three stone homes in Fort Coulonge for each of his children. Only one, Spruceholme Inn, is a commercial estabshment. The other two remain as private homes.

Today, Spruceholme offers Victorian elegance in the heart of West Quebec. Not only are the bedrooms tastefully appointed in a manner befitting the Bryson mansion, but there is a fine dining room, too. A piano bar just off the dining room completes the ambiance of ease and rest reminiscent of a traditional English pub. Here you can nurse a pre- or post-dinner drink and chat with your hosts, proprietors Glenn and Marlene Scullion.

They saw the ‘for sale’ sign on the property’s wrought iron fence early in 1996. It got their creative juices flowing and they started dreaming their dreams for the old home. After extensive renovations, the Inn was opened for business in 1997.

One of Spruceholme’s particular delights is that the Scullions convinced the former owners – direct descendants of Bryson – to leave many of the original antiques. Some give a particularly intimate feel to Spruceholme.

This intimacy is notable in the dining room, where photographs of the Brysons adorn the walls, peering down at you as you eat. Your attention is also drawn to the sweeping staircase with its gracious banister. The rise of the staircase is gentle, and you soon find yourself exploring upstairs, amid more antiques.

Not surprisingly, the bedrooms are charming, so perhaps your greatest challenge will be in deciding which one to choose. Because Sir Wilfred Laurier stayed there, we chose the Bryson room. A contemporary of George Bryson, Jr., the two politicians would have had much to talk of into the wee hours of the morning.

All of Spruceholme’s six rooms have ensuite bathrooms and the Bryson’s room is wondrous large. It is a well-lit space that boasts a generous bathtub and roomy shower stall. In fact, it is so spacious that surely any couple can dawdle about quite happily without getting in each other’s way.

And we must not forget the food. Chef Roger Guertin presents a fine selection. We both enjoyed the garlic shrimp, not overcooked – and seasoned to perfection! Desserts – all made from scratch by Marlene – are delicious. As well, this lady somehow manages to rise before her guests and make a light breakfast, with piping hot coffee.

Marlene and Glenn do close for Christmas Eve and Day, but they welcome you throughout the rest of the year. Says Marlene, “We offer a really delightful New Year’s Eve menu and at midnight, we gather around the piano. Glenn plays Auld Lang Syne, and everyone lingers, welcoming in the New Year in an old-fashioned, country style.”

Veracruz Adventure Challenge

November 8, 1998 9:27 pm

By Katharine Fletcher; Images Eric Fletcher

Would we be fit enough for our “adventure challenge”?

It was our sole concern as we flew to Mexico in the American Airlines plane out of Toronto.

We’d signed up for what was billed as an exhilarating 15-day Veracruz Adventure Challenge with Esprit Rafting of Davidson, Quebec. The package includes rafting the rapid-filled Barrancagrande River in the Sierre Madre Mountains, horseback riding, mountain hiking, and hiking through remote and lofty villages.

We soon found we were suitably fit. The trip was an excellent balance of physically demanding activities along with “free time” for cultural exploration of museums and galleries in Mexico City and Jalapas. And you can possibly imagine the flamboyant gaiety of the Mardi Gras celebrations we found in the port city of Veracruz!

Upon our arrival in Mexico City, Jim Coffey, owner of Esprit Rafting, personally greeted us and whisked us off to our hotel by taxi. Attentive and extremely well organized, Jim is no “hands-off” operator. Au contraire, he is always ready to answer even your most detailed questions.

The first night, Jim dined with us at one of his favourite restaurants, La Opera Bar. Mexican hero Pancho Villa once disliked the service here so much that he unloaded his pistol into its walls and ceilings! Or, so the story goes… These days the service is just fine!

Mexico’s like that full of colourful legends. And so, inspired by tales and the banter of our guides, we traveled in Esprit’s bus to its Mexican “headquarters,” the village of Jacamulco. The congested streets of the city slipped away to reveal the source of the river we’d be rafting on: the snow-capped peak of Mount Orizaba. As Jim drove – yes, all guides take their turn – we were regaled by his personal insights into the culture we would soon experience.

“We’ll be hiking through the most amazing villages,” he enthused. But he reflected, too, on the rapid changes even the remote villagers are now embracing, such as television. “Villages that had no electricity now have it. They don’t want to live in the nostalgia I like to see.”

We empathized with Jim’s nostalgia, hoping that we would still be able to see some of “the old Mexico.”

We need not have worried. Jacamulco was electrified, but its residents are genuine, and amazingly friendly. Even though we couldn’t speak much Spanish, Eric and I were often welcomed into people’s homes: they’d simply beckon us in.

One night, as a part of their Mardi Gras celebrations, the townsfolk dressed up in costume and thronged the streets in a village-wide party! We joined the swarm of dancing villagers on the cobbled lanes. The Grim Reaper darted here and there, touching people’s shoulders with his scythe. Kids squealed in mock fear, parents smiled indulgently: mirth and merriment were everywhere in evidence, despite the ambience of muerte!

It was hard to leave the throng, but we returned to eat and sleep at Expediciones Tropicales, the Mexican partner of Esprit Rafting. It offers hostel-like accommodations and scrumptious, plentiful quantities of food. Naturally, there’s cool “cervesa” (beer) to be enjoyed, too, as well as exciting videos of Esprit Rafting’s various conquests of rapids all over the world.

The physical exertions started the following day. Our destination was a rare Cloud Forest at a ranch called Las Cañadas (The Little Gorges), where we rode horses, hiked and camped for two days. Vegetarian owner Rocardo Romero created a sensation when he turned his father’s beef ranch into an organic farm. His organic produce, including milk, cheese and butter from Jersey cows, is winning the respect of neighbouring campasinos, or farmers, who are starting to realize that Ricardo is on to something economically and environmentally sustainable.

It’s intriguing to witness the ripple effect of ecotourism. As we rode out of Las Cañadas through a nearby village, Eric asked why the schoolchildren were pointing at his horse.

“Oh, they’ve just recognized yours! It belongs to one of their fathers,” laughed Ricardo. The mounts we rode did not belong to Ricardo but were rented from local campasinos. Suddenly, the kids were aware that their fathers’ horses were useful to these strange foreigners who want to explore their world.

Everywhere we rode, rafted, hiked or hiked, we found lots to discover and we realized that locals were equally as intrigued by us as we were by them. In our self-baling rafts, we bobbed through thousand-foot canyons with walls that were undercut by swirling currents. We heard jungle birds call, and surprised donkeys as we rounded a bend in the river. Campasinos paused from their labours, machetes in hand, to wane as we white-skinned, be-hatted rafters coursed past.

“Hola!” we shouted, smiling and waving in response to their greeting.

How I loved these days on the river. At night, tucked into our tents, we fell asleep under the canopy of stars. Always, always we were awakened by a cacophony of noise which started at 3:50 a.m. most mornings. Yes, braving donkeys, cock-a-doodle-doos of roosters and the chimes of morning mass conspired to raise us from our slumber!

It was difficult to say goodbye to Jacamuko but the day came for us to peddle to the coast. Eric and some others cycled the entire 50 kilometres to Chachalacas Beach, north of Veracruz. I only rode for an hour or so before boarding Esprit’s van to the coast, where beaches, waves and peaceful fishermen welcomed me.

Esprit’s logistical infrastructure is excellent. If you don’t want to participate in a scheduled activity, you can simply tell one of the guides and ride the bus or van that transports Esprit’s tents, food and gear from one night’s stop to the next.

Veracruz itself was delightful. So much colour, great music and, to top it all off, we stayed at the El Mocambo Hotel – the very first beach resort in the area, built in the 1930s. It has all the Spanish Colonial grace you could ask for, with a wonderful pool and good food. A great spot to end up after all our physical challenges.

We love Mexico: this was our fourth visit and it won’t be our last. We were never sick, we ate well, explored new terrain, and can strongly recommend that you investigate Esprit’s many inspiring adventure vacation packages. Jim is always expanding his horizons: he also offers trips to India… Guess where we want to go next?

Hidden Surprises in Gatineau Park

September 8, 1998 9:24 pm

By Katharine Fletcher; Images Eric Fletcher

“I hereby bequeath to the Government of Canada as a public park in trust for the citizens of Canada… my several properties at Kingsmere, in the Province of Quebec, amounting in all to nearly Five Hundred (500) acres, and the houses and other buildings erected thereon.”

So wrote former Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King in his will of 1950.

It is largely because of his passionate love of the land, coupled with his personal vision, that we can enjoy Gatineau Park today. Just 20 minutes north of the spires of Parliament Hill, the park’s 125-kilometre network of woodland trails transports picnickers, hikers and mountain bikers from the concrete jungle to a green, restorative environment. King recognized the tremendous value of parks: we can be glad that he did, and that he championed Gatineau Park’s creation.

Not only does the park offer trails and historical sites to explore. There are refreshing lakes and beaches that give everyone a break from summer’s oppressive humidity. Whether it’s overnight camping at Taylor Lake campgrounds near Lac Philippe or a beachside afternoon at Meech Lake, there’s a patch of sand “with your name on it” up in the hills.

But you mustn’t think you’ll be sharing your lakeside view with a crowd! Before you go, check out a map of the park. At the Visitor’s Centre on Metcaife Street opposite Parliament
Hill, or at the Old Chelsea park information centre, you can get a map and eight new park trail brochures. Take the time to discover what’s beyond familiar Parkway destinations like the Champlain Lookout. If you want a vigorous hike and a grand view to reward your effort, ask about the Wolf Trail and remember: after you hike, you can enjoy a dip in Meech Lake! Sounds good, doesn’t it?

One spot that is a “must-see” are King’s twin properties of Kingswood Cottage, which he built in 1903, and Moorside with its delightful grounds. If you haven’t been there for a few years, check it out… and don’t forget to take your summer guests along, for it’s a little gem of history tucked away in the Canadian woods!

The National Capital Commission (NCC), which manages Gatineau Park, has beautifully interpreted both sites. At Kingswood, a video of King’s life and times provides context to his impact on the area. The cottage is a museum, which looks as it did when King enjoyed it as his personal retreat from the pressing urgency of politics.

If Kingswood was a refuge, Moorside – his larger property across the road – allowed King to experiment with creating an English country estate in Quebec’s Gatineau Hills. He revelled in the role of a country squire, building stone walls, erecting his astonishing collection of ruins, creating footpaths through the woods and designing flower gardens.

Although there is a pleasant tearoom at Moorside, you might choose to go on a woodland walk and picnic. Pack a daypack, find the Abbey ruins, and then descend the short, steep hill to the Waterfall Trail. King cleared this broad path which now passes beneath the Champlain Parkway to end at a little cascade which he named Bridal Veil Falls. Just before it, you’ll come to a fork in the trail heading right, towards Larriault picnic grounds. It’s a gentle woodsy walk that gives good views of the flat Ottawa Valley plain, which extends as far as you can see in all directions.

There’s another parking lot at Larriault, as well as picnic tables. If you want to complete a leisurely circuit, walk back to Moorside, cross the Champlain Parkway at Larriault to enter Mulvihill Lake’s picnic area.

We’ll tell you a secret! The NCC has created a pleasant, wheelchair-accessible dock on this man-made lake. Paved trails that are perfect for tiny tots and folks with walkers or wheelchairs make the short, gentle descent to the lake manageable. The sturdy dock with solid railings and benches extends into the lake to allow everyone to enjoy the air. To return to Moorside, find the sign pointing to the estate at the foot of the lake.

The entire circuit can be walked in less than an hour, but our bet is that you’ll want to make it a more leisurely excursion. Because Moorside, Larriault and Mulvihill all have their own parking lots, you can fashion your own “custom circuit.”

But don’t think that the Mackenzie King Estates are all there is to do in Gatineau Park!

A quick glance at a map reveals a park full of lakes and intriguing-sounding trails: Wolf, Nature, King Mountain and Discovery trails are only a few of the best. Three lakes: Meech, Mousseau (Harrington) and Philippe are accessible by hiking trails from O’Brien Beach, Just beyond Old Chelsea on the Meech Lake Road, and Lac Lapeche, the largest of the lakes, is only a 90-minute drive from Ottawa.

Also enquire about canoeing, mountain hiking, booking campsites, or about interpreted walks that might be offered at the campgrounds in the summertime.

This year, make getting to know Gatineau Park a personal goal. Hey, you’ll have fun in the sun, get some fresh air and get fit, all at once. What a great deal!

Trekking: Travel Tips for a Honeymoon in South East Asia

June 8, 1998 9:21 pm

Rob and Annie Cornforth recently returned from an eight-month honeymoon in South East Asia.

Ottawa Life has followed their travels since September 1997. Now the globetrotters are back, telling us about their experiences and how it feels to be back home. (Look for Rob and Annie on Parliament Hill as Captain Seymour Canada and Missus Canada, selling Cuddle Canada pillows to finance their next big trip.)

Just before leaving, we were filled with intense optimism and raw fear. Our fear vanished shortly after our arrival in Denpasar, Bali, in September 1997. The initial culture shock was one of the more exciting moments of our trip.

Eventually, all the dreams we had for our extended honeymoon would be realized. We found adventure, reinforced our love and grew spiritually. Today, we know that we made the right decision by following our dreams.

Did we ever get bored in our travels? Sometimes, but the trip changed our lives forever. We’re different people now. We look the same but our friends say we’ve changed in some hard-to-define way.

We’re grateful to have had the opportunity to share our adventures with you. We hope we have encouraged others out there to follow their dreams.

What you should pack for such a trip:
one camera; one pair of waterproof sandals; one pair of hiking boots; two pairs of socks; Lycra thermal underwear (shirt and pants); one pair of quick-dry pants with zippers so that they can be turned into shorts; two dirt-tone T-shirts; raincoat; Ziploc freezer bags for passports and photocopies of important documents; first aid/toiletry kits; two books (fiction and non-fiction) for those occasional boring moments; Lonely Planet guidebook; waterproof money belt; Leatherman knife; a durable hat.

Closest call:
Being locked in a van and almost being robbed, abducted, and/or beaten in Solo, Indonesia.

Dreams come true:
Riding an elephant, climbing a volcano; jungle trekking; sex on a South East Asian beach, learning yoga.

Best deals:
Accommodation and meals for $1.30 in Nong Khiaw, Laos; acoustic guitar purchased for $25 in Solo, Indonesia; ceremonial mask bought in Bangkok for S15, retails for US$90 on Melrose Avenue in El Ay.

Favourite dishes:
Pad Thai; papaya salad; green curry and rice; sticky rice; fresh tropical fruit.

Rob lost 30 pounds and Annie lost 15 pounds after a seven-month vegetarian diet and constant exertion.

Get to the Point: Yellow Point Lodge

9:04 pm

By Katharine Fletcher; Images Eric Fletcher

World War II POW Gerry Hill sustained his life during his internment by honing a cherished dream. He resolved to build a resort when he regained his freedom. There, he envisioned, visitors would relax and enjoy British Columbian nature at its best.

He realized his goal. While touring Vancouver Island’s east coast, he discovered 180 acres, complete with a mile and a half of . Today, the magic he saw remains: fragrant wildflowers and grasses still blow in the breeze off the ocean. Cedar and arbutus woods frame the beach meadows, beckoning you to linger in their shade, to explore their mysteries. Yellow Point is a mere two-hour drive north of Victoria and overlooks the spectacular inner channel to the coastal mountains of BC.

Amid this glory, old Gerry built Yellow Point Lodge right on the granite rocks. Built from cedar, the lodge welcomed its first guests in 1936.

From the start, Gerry created a getaway from the stresses of life. A lingering place fit for honeymoons and anniversaries, for lovers and comfortable friends. Time has proven his astuteness, for Yellow Point Lodge snuggles into your soul and won’t let you go.

So popular is it that many times of the year – including the summer solstice are booked by returning groups of friends who celebrate the seasons of their lives here.

Amazing views to relax the soul.

In 1985, in Gerry’s 90th year, the lodge burned to the ground. Amazingly, Friends of Yellow Point was struck and, like the proverbial Phoenix, a new, generously gabled cedar lodge rose from the ashes. Today it is operated by Gerry’s son Richard and daughter-in-law Sandi.

But what is it that makes people return, year after year? What magnetic power does the Point possess?

Perhaps it’s the towering stone fireplace encircled by overstuffed sofas. Or the beach barbecues where seafood and corn on the cob are served on picnic tables, allowing strangers and good friends to mingle.

Possibly it’s the rhythms of Nature, the endless roll of the waves on the beach. In winter, orcas and sea lions swim in the bay. In summer, deep in the forest, you might catch a glimpse of a deer, hear the melodious call of the wren, or spy a hummingbird hovering in a shaft of sunlight. Whatever it is, the spell is cast.

If you are like us, you cherish balancing relaxation with physical activities. The lodge offers swimming, tennis or mountain hiking, sea kayaking or canoeing-each included in the price of your stay. Ask the lodge to make you a picnic lunch, then off you’ll go, free and easy. We particularly enjoy such days, when we feel sure that just this once we can thwart Time. It is impossible to say how many hours we’ve spent, stretched flat on the rocks, gazing into the busy life-in-miniature captured in a tidal pool. It’s a glimpse of childhood’s carefree ways.

Yes, there are many reasons to ‘get to the Point.’ Some are drawn by the few remaining, primitive cabins that Gerry built, cast like pebbles on the beach. Impossibly close to the ocean for today’s environmental code, they hark back to less regulated times. These are our personal favourites. At night, you could swear you’ll be transported away, like a Jane Urquhart hero, upon the ocean’s waves, which wash close to the door. However, morning discovers you snug in your bed, stretching with the salty air and ready for beachcombing.

A rustic cabin is the perfect place to relax.

If you prefer the comforts of fully outfitted cottages (beach cabin guests share showers and toilets), there are cottages in the woods, meadows and others perched atop rocky cliffs with grand ocean views. As well, nine rooms in the lodge, offer something for most tastes.

But not for all. Yellow Point makes no pretense to be everyone’s cup of tea. For us, it is the lodge’s quietude and its lingering atmosphere of tranquility that urge us to return. And we enjoy mealtimes where guests sit together at tables set for eight or ten. But if you want the bright lights, a casino or extreme adventure vacations, save it for another time. You can be sure Yellow Point Lodge will be there, firmly affixed on its rock, waiting for you.

Cushing Lodge Nature Retreat

May 8, 1998 9:03 pm

By Katharine Fletcher

There’s a hot tub with your name on it overlooking a private lake an hour’s drive from Ottawa.

Just imagine how relaxed you’ll feel, toasty warm, luxuriating in the tub with the canopy of stars twinkling in the heavens above. Can you identify the constellations Orion and Big Dipper? You’ll find these and more far away from the light pollution of Ottawa.

It’s all part of the experience you will enjoy at Cushing Lodge B&B Nature Retreat, located just north of Ladysmith, West Quebec. The 250-hectare property offers kilometres of forested trails for your hiking enjoyment. And, as summer warms the waters of Indian Lake, there is good swimming along with a safe, sandy beach for youngsters.

The perfect retreat from the big city.

Geoffrey and Jo-Ellen Cushing built the lodge in October 1991. It was a challenge, carving the winding laneway from the country road to their brand-new home and resort. They built the main lodge and its dining room, along with a guest lodge, on the shores of a private lake. If you’re lucky, you’ll spy the playful otters that call the lake home. We have enjoyed prolonged looks at them; the last time we were at the lodge there were five of them. With the help of a powerful scope, we felt as if we were right beside the otters as they dove, splashed and played in the lake.

Ask Jo-Ellen and Geoffrey where to look. The high-powered scope is ready and waiting for you, mounted on a tripod in front of the bay windows in the dining room.

During the month of May, migrant birds are returning to our region, so this is a great time to explore the countryside. The silence of the whiter woods is broken by songbirds’ twitterings as they establish territories and build their nests.

Cushing Lodge is an increasingly well-known raptor centre. Raptors (birds of prey) have been a lifelong passion for the Cushings.

Lakes as clean and smooth as glass.

Says Jo-Ellen: “Since childhood we have been intrigued and fascinated by raptors. We have wondered why they have been worshipped and used as symbols of peace and power for centuries. Yet, at times man has scorned and persecuted these winged predators. We believe that through education and facilities such as ours, people can gain a better appreciation for and understanding   of   the importance that raptors play in the natural world.”

Included in her collection of these fascinating birds is Casper the barn owl. Due to habitat loss – old barns are rapidly being demolished – this species is increasingly at risk. Also at risk is the gorgeous snowy owl, and the Cushings are completing a new “snowy” facility this summer, in July.

A real treat is to participate in the raptor in-flight demonstration that the Cushings annually host in conjunction with the African Lion Safari Farms of Cambridge, Ontario. It’s an unforgettable experience to watch birds of prey such as the Harris hawk, snowy owl and others fly at close range. Spectators are asked to volunteer to help with the demonstration-

We can vouch for how thrilling it is to watch a “snowy” fly close to the ground, hugging the meadow and then swoop up to perch on your wrist! Don’t be afraid: you’ll be given a sturdy leather gauntlet to wear so the raptor’s talons don’t inadvertently scratch you.

A rustic lodge with all the comforts you need.

Even if there’s no flight demonstration happening, Jo-Ellen will enthusiastically show you the birds. Bald eagles, hawks and owls regard you with interest when you peer into their enclosures. Ask her about her breed-and-release program for these threatened species.

But if leisurely walks in the woods are more your thing, simply head off down one of the trails. In May, trilliums nod in the spring breezes. Look for all three variety: the white trillium, the wakerobin (red trillium) and the painted, which is more fragile than the others and has a magenta “V” in each of its three white petals.

And, if all you want to do is relax in the hot tub, have tasty meals and forget about work, the Cushing Lodge B&B near Ladysmith, Québec, is a destination we’re sure you’ll enjoy.

Florida's Nature Coast: Canadian Dollars at Par!

April 8, 1998 8:59 pm

Text and  images by: Katharine Fletcher

There’s a little bit of heaven waiting for you on Florida’s Nature Coast… Mockingbirds will call melodious songs from palm trees. Natural springs pour turquoise waters through rivers bordered by emerald grasses and gnarled, bellbottomed cyprus.

And, as if such natural beauty is not enough to make you want to rush right down, Canadian dollars are accepted at par for stays of a week or more until May 21.

Where is this oasis of tranquil delights?

Steinhatchee Landing Resort.

At Steinhatchee Landing Resort (pronounced STEEN-hat-chee). Located only 1-1/2 hours south of Tallahassee, the state capital, the rustic fishing village of Steinhatchee is on the Gulf of Mexico. Freshwater and saltwater anglers know it well and in season (late summer) the scalloping is renowned. It’s a region largely untouched by commercial development: there are no McDonald’s, malls, nor Mickey Mouse or Goofy.

What you will discover, instead, is Old Florida, the sort of place where time lingers. Where you can bike down into the village of 1,000 to explore the coast at leisure. Where you can catch your breath amid the live oaks dripping with Spanish moss and cook your own meals, just the way you like, on the barbecue or in the kitchen of your housekeeping cottage.

Your host is Dean Fowler, a southern Georgian gentleman who has cannily designed a 14-acre “off the beaten track” resort whose cottages are tastefully hidden among live oak, sweetgum and palm trees. Walkways lead from gazebos to riverfront, from the vegetable garden to the little creek that wends its way to the river. To affect the feel of a a little village. Dean – everyone calls him by his first name,
staff as well as guests – selected three architectural designs from which you can choose. Victorian, Georgian or the appealing Floridian style called “Cracker.”

We stayed in a Cracker “Spice Cabin,” which feature two-storey screened porches, queen-size bed, full bathroom with ensuite laundry facilities, and an upstairs kitchen, dining room/living room with sofa bed, and VCR/TV. We enjoyed the generous space, as would a family of four or two couples. It’s simply superb value at $120 a night for the cottage – not per person!

It was especially delightful to greet the sunrise and enjoy the ensuing birdsong from the upstairs porch. Acorns from the live oaks fell with a crack and a rattle on the tin roof. Far from disconcerting, the sound blended into nature’s awakening: besides, we could watch the squirrels chasing them as they tumbled to the ground.

The Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic Home

The whirlpool spa, exercise room and swimming pool await, only a short walk from your cottage door. Says Dean: “Our free activities include archery, badminton, jogging trail, volleyball, fishing, spa, tennis, bicycles, shuffleboard, horseshoes, canoeing, walking paths and basketball.” Quite enough to keep most happy, even for a week-long stay. For an additional fee you can rent a horse and ride the Landing’s trails.

Although the well-stocked Mason’s Market grocery is nearby, Steinhatchee Landing’s restaurant offers delectable cuisine. Don’t consider leaving without trying crab cakes, pecan-coated grouper and other culinary sensations such as the fluffy coconut cake!

For those of you who want to explore, you’ll find that Dean and his staff are tremendously proud of their region. The
Landing’s office offers brochures describing attractions such as the 25 natural springs (where you can see mastodon bones or tube down a river of turquoise water). Want a bit of culture after all this natural splendour? Ask about the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings historic home (this feminist was author of The Yearling); the antique shops of High Springs; or the Tallahassee Museum of History and Natural Science.

Trekking: Thailand

March 8, 1998 8:56 pm
March 1

Last month, we shared in the action-packed adventures of Rob and Annie Cornforth as they took a swim at a dam in Indonesia and explored a watery cave. The Ottawa couple packed their bags after wedding at the end of August and set off for an eight-month trek around the world. Ottawa Life Magazine is tracing the couple’s steps every month and telling their stories. This month, Rob describes the weird and wonderful sights and smells of a market in Sungai Kolok, Thailand:

The spirit of a town can be found in one place – its market. The spirit of Sungai Kolok was embodied in a multitude of crowded stalls which lined the dingy back streets. An endless variety of oddities and bargains lined the booths. Fruit, vegetables, raw meat and t-shirts made up the regular fare. But it was the oddities that evoked so many emotional reactions.

Annie and I bought some soup from a vendor, determined to stay open-minded as we sampled the local cuisine. As the mixture was placed in a bowl in front of me a host of ingredients whirled by: onions, carrots, spinach, garlic, gristle and, suddenly, a chicken foot!

A groan escaped my lips as the grey and wrinkled claw settled to the bottom of the bowl. It was like a scene from a horror flick! Discreetly I extracted it, placed it in a napkin and waited for the hurl reflex to pass.

Unlike Canadians, Thais don’t gut their chickens or remove the head. The whole thing is chopped up from head to foot and cooked, with nothing but the feathers wasted.

The next day we took the 45-minute ferry trip to the neighbouring island of Ko Phangan, to take part in the “full moon party.” The idea of this gathering is to celebrate the union of many different cultures, together in harmony under the same moon. The party is the island’s busiest time of the year-people from near and far flock to participate.

We started the night drinking whiskey in our bungalow. Our rooms gave a perfect view of the sandy-white beach and the ocean-blue water. From our vantage point we could see that the beach had been transformed into a fluorescent boom box. Four huge speakers pumped out techno music. We moved down to the sand and sat on bamboo mats facing the ocean as the partiers started to gather. The full moon and its bluish hues cast a reflection on the swooning ocean which stared back at us.

We were invited to have our faces painted in phosphorescent colours. I drew an Egyptian eye in the sand and the local artist tattooed it over my left eye in blue. Annie ended up with smiling lime-green lips and orange polka dots on her cheeks and forehead, which captured the emotions of her face.

The party was really wound up. Repetitious bass beats pounded into our bodies. Painted faces glowed in the black of the night. Festivities didn’t wind down until 1:30 a.m. or so the next day.

In this leg of our journey we were reminded of the difference between a tourist and a traveller: a tourist has more money than time and therefore enjoys the convenience of expensive hotels with all the amenities. Travellers have more time than money and learn to revel in simplicity.

The Big Secret: The Iberostar at Playa Del Carmen, Mexico

8:49 pm

Playa del Carmen is a Mexican fishing village one hour south of Cancun. In recent years it has become a small resort catering to tourists who like to be comfortable but not inundated with the commercial excesses of larger venues.

Signature Vacations offers all-inclusive packages direct from Ottawa, ranging from $1200 to $2400, for one to two weeks. (Prices vary depending on the time of year you go; it is not possible to be any more specific.) Over the past several years thousands of people from the National Capital area have visited this town and become attached to the warmth of its people and its quaint charm.

The packages include stays at resorts like the brand-new five-star Tucan Iberostar Playacar. The resort, built by a Spanish business consortium, is truly impressive. The entrance rises out of the jungle terrain and the visitor is met by two 12-foot statues of Mayan Indians, lush tropical plants and several fountains in the surrounding jungle. Marble and ceramic floors decorate the entranceway and dining areas, while 12- and 18-foot salmon-and-blue pillars are geometrically spaced to lend a classic architectural look.

Displayed throughout the resort are Mayan sculptures, local etchings and beautiful wood carvings. Visitors reach the dining room by crossing a footbridge over a small ravine. There are no walls in the dining and bar areas of the Iberostar, just the vast array of the natural terrain. Marble floors through the jungle lead to several pastel- coloured villas. Each is no higher than three stories and merges nicely with the landscape. Iberostar was designed to blend with the surrounding terrain rather than overwhelm it, and the grounds are spectacular.

The Iberostar is upscale, yet retains a casual atmosphere. The staff are from the local area, Europe and North America, so most visitors can be served in their own language. The food, served both buffet-style and with table service, is varied and excellent.

Iberostar is only a three-minute walk from a golf course, and a twenty-minute walk or a five-minute cab ride to the villa del Carmen. The village boasts miles of sandy, palm-lined beaches on the crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean, dozens of varied restaurants, and an attitude that is distinctly low-key. The pedestrian walkway is lined with shops of local artisans’ works: fine silver jewellery, delicately carved wood, embroidered linens, stone products, hammocks and a large selection of paintings and sculptures. Every day and evening the local teens play soccer on the beach in the main square, a popular stopping point for both tourists and locals.

A week-long stay at this quaint resort near this beautiful town convinced me that anyone who is looking for a place to visit should consider this one.

Trekking: Indonesia

February 8, 1998 8:42 pm

This month, our two adventurers, and some friends, experience the beauty of Delta Gecko Village in Pangandaran. Rob and Annie packed their bags after wedding at the end of August aid set off for an eight-month trek around the world. Ottawa Life Magazine is tracing the couple’s steps every month and telling their stories. Their adventures this month start at a dam in Indonesia, where they arrived with friends Elinore and Dave, sweaty and hot and ready for a swim. The dam had three levels of waterfalls and the group climbed all three. The water was blue and green with thick, lush foliage. It was exactly how Rob and Annie had dreamed Indonesia would be like…

Behind the last cascading falls we found the mouth of a cave. The guys ventured in but the girls didn’t go far, as its slimy walls and dark existence made them feel claustrophobic…

Rob and Dave soon discovered a flashlight was necessary when their first attempt to explore landed them in pitch black. Swimming with his head above water and a flashlight between his teeth, Rob led the way back into the cave.

In order to travel its length the guys had to crawl through some sections and swim in others. At some points the breathing space between water and ceiling was only a matter of about a foot. Neither of the guys had ever done anything like this before.

Every twist and turn, the weight of claustrophobia, and occasionally the dimming light, made for exciting, authentic exploration.

The route eventually ended in a huge cavern which was big enough to stand in and walk around. Stalactites dangled from the ceiling, glittering like diamonds when the light passed over them.

It was difficult for the guys to leave, but it was getting late. They promised to return….

The next day we took a bemo to the Green Canyon. Elinore and Dave joined us again, as did Kevin from England and Cami from Paris.

We rented a boat for 24,000 rp (C$12). The boat was similar to a dugout canoe and brought us up the beautiful green river. We spotted a lizard and some birds we’d never seen before.

We arrived at the canyon 20 minutes later. The boat anchored, we got out to explore the 50-metre stalactite walls that were dripping large droplets of water. During the rainy season the droplets are transformed into a steady stream of water. With the light shining through a canopy of trees above, it was like being inside an emerald. When unable to swim any longer, we had to climb the big rocks, while making sure we didn’t slip on their wet, slimy surface. Kevin climbed cautiously, as his left eye was already black and blue from slipping on a rock at the dam a few days before. His injury made us realize the importance of safety and caution while travelling. We would hate to find ourselves in a third-world country hospital.

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