Sunset

Tortugas, Tacos and Total Bliss

We recently escaped from the dreary rain of Victoria to the brilliant sun of Mexico – namely to the Yucatan. Not only did we get some serious sun and sand, we had a few other surprises come our way, which tends to happen on our trips. It might be a simple language barrier, a missed turn, or getting locked out of the villa the first night… whatever the case, the unfamiliar and unexpected is exactly the reason I love to travel.

And travel we did. After 12 hours of assorted trains, planes and automobiles and a stop at the Mega in Playa del Carmen for groceries, we finally made it to our sweet, sweet condo overlooking Half-Moon Bay in Akumal Norte (about an hour-and-a-half’s drive south of Cancun). Akumal translates to ‘place of the turtles’ in the Mayan language. Seems fitting, given the amount of tortugas we saw (but did not touch, because we didn’t really want to get arrested – or lose a finger). Of course, it was pretty much dark when we arrived at the condo, so we could scarcely make out what awaited us view-wise. But the next morning we woke up to luminescent turquoise water and sweeping views of a curving bay, giving way to a brilliant, glaring white shore. Yep, it’s what we signed up for.

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Urchinville, USA
Warning! This relatively calm, beautiful bay is not as tranquil as it seems. Take the first day we step into the water, clad in our reef shoes, essential for the rocky terrain. Fortunately, most of the time the water is quite clear so you can spot where the spiny black sea urchins are. Until you don’t, and you step on one. Case in point: Cam. We’re in the water no more than 15 minutes, when he simply brushes by one and howls with pain. Losing his balance with the shock of it, he almost falls ass-over-tea-kettle in a whole big patch of ’em. I look at the injury and see it’s just a little blue spot, kind of like an ink stain, near his ankle. But it was enough to become a running joke of sorts from then on.

Losing Keys on Day Three
You’ll notice that a lot of the glitches that happen on our vacations are courtesy of my (most excellent) travel partner. Me? I just go with the flow. Anyway, this particular incident is no exception. After the traumatizing urchin episode on Day Two, we decide to brave the waters once again, this time for some snorkelling. Despite minor annoyances, such as his mask filling with water every five seconds (turns out it was because he hadn’t shaved – don’t ask), and the snorkel bag riding up his back (we had to take it to store said reef shoes, because we didn’t want to step on more urchins…), Cam trudged on like the true trooper he is.

All is well until we surface after some pretty decent snorkelling to get our surroundings. Cam grabs the sealed valuables case – that annoyingly kept riding up the cord around his neck and whacking him in the face – which stored our condo keys. As he does, the latch flips open, revealing – nothing. To this day, we’re still not sure whether the keys fell out at that moment or while we were swimming. It doesn’t matter – they’re gone. After searching the area to no avail, I helpfully offer, “Oh well, we’ll just get another set of keys.” Cam counters with, “That’s great, but one of the keys just happens to be the safe key.” Let’s just say that images of spending the rest of our stay waiting for someone to come and drill the safe open motivated me to seek help – fast.

(When I asked Hector, one of the resident concierges, for another safe key, he asked, “Where did you lose them?” To which I replied, “At the bottom of the ocean.” He shook his head and silently handed me another key. I’d rather not guess as to what he was thinking.)

What Time is it, Akumal?
You may recognize this title to an older blog post of mine from Sayulita, back in ’12. Technically, we knew that Cancun was two hours ahead, which means Akumal would be the same, being just down the coast. Well, technically yes, but not when we got there. Our many digital devices told us that the local time was only one hour ahead. Temporarily confused, we manually change said devices to two hours forward. Then, through a series of confusing two-hours-ahead-and-one-hour-back-incidents (including my iPhone waking me up at what it thought was 7 am, but it was actually 6 am and pitch-black), we took a time risk and made a reservation at a local fancy place on the beach for 6:30 pm. We arrived for dinner at what we thought was 6:30. The waiter greeted us and then nervously explained that it is actually 7:30. I was so unconvinced (and embarrassed) about this that he had to help us change the iPhone setting. Doh!

The full moon in full view by 7:30 pm.
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Emergency Cashola in Chemuyil
The great thing about Mexicans is they are incredibly helpful. Yes, I know I am speaking from a tourist perspective, but I think it’s an inherent trait. Case in point: we’re in Akumal Playa (the beach ‘town’ – a few kms from where we were staying), when we discover it’s time to replenish the peso supply. Yet all ATMs in Akumal are closed. We’re talking about five of them. Closed. No service. We ask another one of our condo concierges named Alfredo – ‘Freddie’ for short – what to do. He tells us there’s an ATM close by in a teeny town called Chemuyil that we could go to. He asks us if we have a car. We say no. “Take mine!” he exclaims, reaching in his pocket for the keys. We contemplate this for a moment, and after he gives us painstaking directions of the take the first left at the halfway tree, then follow the road until you get to the scarecrow at the Anderson farm variety – we say no. Instead, we ask “Can you take us?” Freddie nods, closes his notebook and says “Let’s go right now!” So off we go, do a few loop-de-loops to the highway, zoom past several Pemex’s, and then finally pull up at a dusty, worn grocery off some random side street, complete with ATM. And it was open. Now that’s helpful.

Adios, Akumal
We had pretty much the perfect last day in Akumal. We went back to Akumal bay, where it was slightly less crowded (the first time was over Easter weekend – you can just imagine in a Catholic country). We swam past yet more tortugas to the small and largely unvisited reef. We bobbed under the ropes and discovered a bounty of fish: schools, angels, parrots, whistling needlefish (well it looks like they are), brightly coloured sea fans and huge coral heads. Add that to our turtles (complete with clingy remoras, as pictured on header of this post) and a rare stingray sighting, and we were sufficiently suffonsified.

Two hours later, we lunched at one of our fave places – aptly named Turtle Bay Bakery – where I had the BEST blackened fish tacos EVER. The day gets better: as we head back to the Akumal Norte area on our rusty yet trusty bikes, we discover that the tiny, hole-in-the-wall eatery we’ve been wanting to try but is never open, is actually open! In true carpe diem style, we order dinner for six hours in the future (to which we later bike back to pick up, natch).

Shar with Ol’Rust Bucket – literally. Note the painting of the local fauna imbibing in refreshments of the Mexican beach kind.IMG_2225
Once back at the complex, we received more good news. Hector informed us that someone found our keys, washed ashore four days after we lost them, at the complex next door. They figured the plastic ID tag kept them afloat. We were amazed, and Cam was (rightly) relieved. We left Akumal the next day with a clear conscience and a couple of Sols to refresh our sun-drenched souls.

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– S

Stay tuned for more funnage in Part 2 of our Mex vacay: Island of the Women.

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Categories: Beach, Dining, Mexico, Sunset, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Mowie

OK, so apparently an update is desperately needed – all the people I haven’t talked to since we returned from Maui think that it rained the whole time we were there! Definitely not the case, as a day after my first post, the sun came out and Maui shined. Oh, how it shined.

Now, I can’t really remember the sequence of events that happened after the rain stopped, but here are some pretty cool things. First, though, I do want to mention this little hidey-hole of a spot – actually it’s a van – that contains yes, probably the best fish tacos I’ve ever had (I know I’ve said that before, but this time it is really true). It’s worth the sometimes 45-minute wait at lunch.

Horhito’s – glamourously located next to a 76 gas station in Kihei (“Come Get Hooked!” is right – we went back a couple of times)

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After the severe tropical rain fest of the first couple of days, we resumed our regularly-scheduled program of sunshine and kisses. We were itching to get into the water and experience the amazing sea life Maui is so famous for. So off we went, fins and goggles in hand, to one of the most recommended snorkeling spots in Kihei. However, conditions were sketchy – the surf was way up. Nevertheless, we proceeded to enter the water backwards, only to get swept along by the tidal break, falling into the water and me ripping my knees on hidden (and very sharp) black lava rocks. Thankfully, I didn’t notice until we battled our way against the current, past the rocky point to Kam 2. After getting tossed back onto shore, we called it a day and set up camp on the beach, where I attended to my bloody cuts with bandages and settled in to soak up the sun. I got rewarded with a burn, and an attractive X on my knee. I do realize this looks like something out of a medical journal.

Can you spot the X?

knees

Since the main reason we traveled to Maui was to attend our friend’s wedding, we figured we should go and check it out. Whales breached in front of the Molokini crater as about 30 of us witnessed a traditional Hawaiian ceremony.

A gorgeous morning at Makena beach

wedding

By noon, we were at our fave beach in Wailea with a couple of beverages and the latest Reacher novel. With (yet more) whales breaching in the distance for entertainment, it so did not suck.

beers on beach

As we were staying in a residential area in south Kihei, we developed the happy-hour habit of wandering around our ‘hood at sunset.

Um, yeah… that’s a pretty nice view.

hood sunset2

We did a day trip to another one of the airport beaches described here. Down a dodgy old road off the highway, we parked in a man-size pothole and made our way on foot to the beach through a billy-goat trail and past a beach creature napping on the grass (complete with mini dog and a trailer). We emerged from the bushes to find gorgeous silky sand, picture-postcard turquoise water (see top pic of this post), and of course more beach creatures, this time sans clothes. Oh, and this sign in the distance, which I did actually take as a ‘sign’, seeing it’s the name of our cat we left behind.

A tribute to you, Billie. (It’s a little weird, but definitely cool.)

billie sign

After quite a few snorkelling expeditions around the island, I despaired I would never see a green sea turtle – in the water. Sure enough, on our last attempt at Ulua beach, I bobbed to the surface at one point and asked Cam, “So where do you suppose the turtles hang out?” He shrugged and told me later that he was thinking: does she think I come from a long line of Turtleologists or something?!?. About three seconds later, he noticed another snorkeler gesticulating towards the water, stuck his head under and then quickly surfaced to say something like “Thrs turtloe umber view”. He pulled me under, pointing… and there was my famous Maui turtle! It swam along gracefully and we followed it for some time. It turned out to be a huge specimen, and almost fluorescent in appearance. I was ecstatic.

Ah, beaches, beaches. There are waaaayyyy too many on this lustrous island to hit just in a week. But we sure did our best. Mahalo, Maui.

aloha

– S

Categories: Adventure, Beach, Hawaii, Sunset, Travel, wedding | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Travel Highlights of 2013

It’s the last day of the year and, once again, I find myself apologizing for not writing in an awfully long time. Yeah, I have great excuses: courses, work, and a bit of travel. However, the looming year end has persuaded me to write something – anything. So, it’s time for my travel highlights for 2013. (This is admittedly nothing particularly original on my part – see Best Travel Moments of 2012 for last year’s wrap-up.)

Mexico de Mayo
We kinda lucked out last May – so much so that we dubbed the month Mexico de Mayo. Turns out that months after we booked the first Mexico trip to Sayulita, Cam’s employer awarded him a bonus trip to the other coast of Mexico – the Mayan Riviera. And it happened to take place 10 days after the first trip.

Trip 1: Sayulita
My absolute favourite time of the day anywhere is twilight. And although twilight in Sayulita didn’t actually happen until like 8:00 pm in May, that only meant more sun, more swimming, more time to savour the good life. So when happy hour rolled around, I could usually be found hanging on the edge of the pool, taking in Sayulita’s astounding beauty. (Not to mention it was so damn hot, I didn’t really want to be anywhere else.) You can read more about the trip here.

shar casa pool

Trip 2: Mayan Riviera
Although the Mayan Riviera is undoubtedly beautiful, the area isn’t new to us (we’ve been to Playa del Carmen and the island of Cozumel). But the Rosewood Mayakoba Resort definitely was a novel experience. Lush and plush, no expense was spared in this gem of a spot right on the beach, with its own private lagoon. I’ll spare you the details, but definitely worth mentioning was our room – more like a mini villa – situated on a strip of sifted-flour sand at the end of the complex, with just palm trees and a resident Mexican coati to keep us company. And let’s not forget our private plunge pool (see below) – that, despite its beckoning on a typical tropical day – was not nearly cool enough for us sweltering Canadians!

plunge pool

Iguana on the Cliffs of Tulum
Ok, this post is definitely setting a strong pool theme, so let’s move on to a different body of water: the ocean. But not just any ocean; the intoxicating aquamarine beauty of the Caribbean. No one can resist it, really, not even a local iguana striking a pose on the cliffs of the Mayan ruins of Tulum.

iguana in tulum

More water: right after this tour, we cooled off with a little cave diving in one of the mere 10,000 systems believed to exist in the Yucatan. Unfortunately, I have no pictures of the adventure, but think very underground, very low, very narrow, very dark and very quiet. Off we went in our crocs and snorkel gear.

Salt Spring Island for Canada Day and…
…our 10th wedding anniversary. Back to one of our treasured places in the world – practically in our own backyard. We spent the three-day weekend basking in the sun, driving around in our li’l baby blue, and feasting on jumbo shrimp caught that very afternoon. Bonus start came when our B&B host friend Cap’n Dan happened to be piloting the ferry from Victoria. The moment we parked in our lane, an announcement came over the speaker to the effect of: would Cam & Shari please make their way up to the captain’s deck for an important message? From that point on, our 30-minute ride was from the captain’s quarters, high, high above, with a prominent view of our destination route. Then, upon docking at Salt Spring, our car row got to offload first. It helps to know the right people.

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One of the decorative shelves at our fave B&B.

Another SSI highlight – of the culinary kind this time: tracking down our pottery friends whom we’ve been buying from every summer. Sadly, for practical reasons they packed in the pottery, and instead opened a new bakery called Bite Me. These were the best (and biggest) darn ice-cream sangys we’ve ever had.

ssi ice cream sangy

Note the evil grin on the oatmeal one. Bite me, indeed.

Picking up a New Addition to the Family
Post-Canada Day, we took a quick trip across the city to pick up Billie (after Billie Holiday), our beautiful red-headed, green-eyed girl. We got her through an animal shelter, who rescued her and her five kittens from an SPCA in the States. Her kittens had been adopted out, and now it was her turn. We were only too happy to bring her into our home and our hearts. Needless to say, she’s settled in quite nicely. A recent visit to her foster family’s website revealed a strong resemblance of one of her male kittens to his mom. Awwwwwww!!

little billie.

More cats – but twice three times as large
Ok, we are definitely moving away from the water theme, with our annual August jaunt to the heart of the Canadian prairies: Brandon, Manitoba. Home to the in-laws, and some of the biggest cats in Canada. Yup, no question – these barnyard beauties are as cuddly as they are huge. Meet Casey (top) and Callie (the calico). Not surprisingly, there wasn’t a mouse or similar rodent to be found on the 66 acres that is their home. Good kitties, they is.

big cats

Cleveland – A little work, a little ball, and a whole lotta of Rock & Roll
September found me at a content marketing conference in none other than Cleveland, Ohio, along with three of my colleagues (the crazy one madly waving his arms is actually my boss). Although we were there technically for work, there were plenty of moments to discover the city of Cleveland itself, which frankly, I hadn’t thought of much before I packed my bags. This pic was by far one of my favourite moments – en route to an Indians game, via lively 5th Street and in 36 degree C heat with not a breeze to be had. Other highlights were an opening bash at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and an 80s party at the House of Blues. Oh, and the best damn stuffed snapper I’ve ever tasted. Practically in the Midwest, no less.

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bowlin shoes

Decked out in our bowling shoes, ready to hit the lanes.

Maple Ridge Sisterhood
Back to my sister Karen’s place, not only to say goodbye to one of her great friends – note her Death Party in this post – but for a permanent change. Namely, a tattoo. But not just any tattoo, and not just one. We both decided to get a Celtic sisterhood insignia combined with an infinity symbol marked on our skin. And yeah, it hurt – especially on a place with very little skin and a whole lot of nerve endings (that’s my wrist and her ankle). But, it was worth every hot-fire-poker-dragging-across-skin minute. And, Karen didn’t mind me crushing her poor hand, so that’s OK.

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I love you infinity times, Karen.

Bonus Highlight: Snow Love
Technically, this still counts as traveling. It was the morning of my last day at work before the two-week holiday closure. We woke to a dusting of snow – nothing to be alarmed about, but enough to make a few people decide to take an early vacation. This is Victoria, after all. This very cool design was actually done by tire tracks just outside our house.

snow love

‘Tis the season of love.

– S

Categories: Beach, Gulf Islands, Mexico, Pool, Sunset, Travel | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

La Dolce Vita in Sayulita

So, I know I haven’t written in… well, ages. Seems I’ve used that line fairly recently, but that’s because I hadn’t really been anywhere.

That confessed, I’m happy to report that after five dreary months in the soggy, freezing climate that is Victoria (the rest of our beloved country has had it much worse, so I will stop complaining), we finally found the sun. It took us only 4,402 kilometres to get to it, but I’m not going to get wrapped up in data. The point is, we found our sun. And it was right here the whole time. In Sayulita.

mex sun

OK, that pic is not really the sun (which is doing its duty by scorching us daily – but I’m not complaining). It’s one of the many, many stunning art features of the rather amazing villa we rented in the north end of town – the quiet part of town. Admittedly, it’s a wee big for us, what with three bedrooms and four full bathrooms (including a pool bathroom – genius idea – noted for future palace). We tried our best to get friends to come and stay with us, but no one bit. Crazy people.

mex mariluna

I adore the design of this place: open air, simple and elegant. Did I mention it’s surrounded by water? Two water features, a pool, and the ocean just steps below.

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Enter the turret. It’s actually home of two of the bathrooms. Nothing like showering while peering out from domed windows.

mex casa turret

The pool shot. ‘Nuff said.

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And then…

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The other night we had a local chef come to our villa to cook us a traditional Mexican feast of homemade guacamole, mahi-mahi with a sesame seed crust and mango sauce, sautéed veggies, and fresh fruit garnished with coconut shavings for dessert. A lovely light dinner, perfect for these hot nights.

mex guac

Yesterday we went on a jungle walk to one of the many secluded beaches around Sayulita – three miles of sand… and us.

mex playa

We walked a little farther and spotted the residence of a former president of Mexico:

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Looking for graveyard quiet?

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Oh, Sayulita – how I missed you. It’s good to be back.

mexshar

– S

Categories: Beach, Dining, Glamorous, Mexico, Pool, Sunset, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Postcard from Seminyak

Sooooo… it’s been more than a week since we first arrived on the sweet, sweet island of Bali, in the Hindu heart of the Indonesian archipelago. As incredibly long as the flights were (about 21 hours of total travel), we ‘toughed’ it out as best we could in our first-class pods. Rather than reiterating the fabulousness of traveling first class on Cathay Pacific, I’ll direct you to my 2010 Bali trip post.

We arrived in the crowded, hot and vaguely smelly Denpasar airport unperturbed, because after several trips to Bali, we know the drill. We arranged for immigration Fast Track service, and sure enough our paid ‘facilitator’ was waiting for us with a sign as we got off the escalator.

As our new friend disappeared with our passports, we eyed up the long and winding customs queue from the other side and couldn’t help but sigh with some relief that we had skipped over all of that. Of course, it’s always a little scary handing your passport over to a relative stranger, but this service is definitely worth it. Six mysterious minutes later our man emerged with our stamped passports and tourist cards for the return trip all tucked inside. Sweet developing world goodness.

Newsflash: it’s bloody hot when you’re in close proximity to the equator. Here, it’s 32 celsius with 100% humidity pretty much every day at this time of year. Constant sweating and at least two showers a day is the norm. This goes on well into the evening – it’s basically shorts and tanks ’round the clock. After a couple of days, we seriously can’t even remember what it’s like to be cold. Mind you, according to the weather reports from home, it’s the usual 24/7 November rain and wind festival, so I’m definitely not complaining – we’ll be re-joining the rest of our grumbling paisanos soon enough.

Our Seminyak villa: where all that is good and warm can be found. (And also many, many mosquitos.)

Our previous visits to Seminyak were done by day trip from sleepy Sanur (AKA Snore) on the east side of the island, our usual home base. This time, however, we rented a villa off Jalan Laksmana, the main road, sometimes called “Eat Street”. The idea was to hit some of our favourite haunts and actually log some beach time.

A Balinese cremation ceremony on Seminyak beach – note the duck trying to escape.

It’s become a bit of a tradition for us to hit Ku De Ta at least once a trip for sunset drinks and epic people-watching, and this trip was no different. It was a beautiful night, definitely sunset-worthy, and after scoring a sweet spot overlooking the beach, we settled in for lychee martinis, mojitos and lobster dumplings.

It was all moonbeams and kitten bums until I was returning from the washroom in high heels, misplaced a step, and did a spectacular face plant right in front of picture-snapping dinner patrons (I distinctly remember a flash or two as this was happening). The frustrating thing was I hadn’t even had that much to drink!

I returned to my seat with a wobbly chin and tears in my eyes, smarting from a temporary nose-dive (literally) to the ol’ self-confidence. Cam brought me around by pointing out the ridiculousness of the situation and soon had me laughing again. Everyone’s been there, in one form or another. Mine just happened to be on camera where every poseur in Bali happens to show up.

Hawkers on Seminyak beach.

On another night on the town, at another putatively super-cool Bali hangout (that shall go unnamed here), we happened to spot a big, furry rodent friend while sipping martinis and – unfortunately – waiting for our appetizer. I heard some scuffling, but Cam saw the whole thing, complete with rat jumping from the top of the bar (yes!) to the ground before zipping away. Our appetizer arrived shortly after that, and we promptly crossed the place off our list. Forever.

On the flip side, if you’re in Seminyak, go to Chandi. Just. Go. Are you there yet?

Let’s bottom-line this: for some, Seminyak is a must-see, renowned for its brown/black sand beach stretching from Kuta to the south, great (but expensive) shopping, and incredible restaurants. I know what you’re thinking: Oh, that sounds just horrible! However, compared to much of Bali, Seminyak is dirty, dusty, crowded, noisy, and just generally waaay too busy for us. It’s kind of like a been there, done that sort of place. Once is enough, say us.

But if you’re looking for a more ‘real’ laid-back Bali experience, try a villa tucked into the rice fields in Ubud, or head for the quiet sands of Sanur. That thought leads to my next post: walking through rice fields, getting caught in torrential rains, being practically deafened by gecko calls, and attending a Balinese wedding. This is all from our private haven tucked up in the cool, serene Bali highlands.

Sun setting over Seminyak beach.

– S

Categories: Bali, Beach, Dining, Glamorous, Pool, Shopping, Sunset, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

10 Weird and Wonderful Things about Saltspring

Normally this time of year finds us on the deck of a B&B on heavenly Saltspring Island, sipping wine and watching the sunset over Vesuvius Bay, a mere 20-minute ferry ride from Vancouver Island. Regrettably, we had to forgo our annual jaunt this summer for many reasons, the biggest one being that we need to save vacation days for Bali (three weeks!) in the fall. C’est la vie. Summer in the city ain’t so bad.

Saltspring is artist’s haven nestled within the southern Gulf Islands, about halfway between Nanaimo and Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia (and our home). As noted on the official Saltspring website,”there are over ten thousand human residents on Salt Spring Island, several thousand sheep and a sizeable deer population.” That pretty much sums it up.

With its close proximity to Victoria, Saltspring makes a great scenic getaway. (A perfect little day trip, too, if you’re so inclined.) We’ve been going there together for years, starting with the summer we got engaged on the island’s ocean-side campground (more about that shortly).

So, I’m going to tell you about some of the Saltspring things we’ll be missing this year, including the brilliant weirdness it has to offer.

1. Ruckle Park
The camping here is breathtaking. Picture a wide-open field perched on top of a cliff, where you can sit back and watch the sailboats, ferries, and big ships go by. Walk along the rocky beach below, feeling the hot stones on your feet as you explore the tidal pools teeming with starfish and crab. The first time I camped here, I fell in love with it. The next time was with my true love, complete with a proposal setting of sea, stars, and a bottle of Wolf Blass Black Label.

2. Saturday Hippie Market
Famous for its patchouli-scented weirdness, this weekly seasonal market offers everything from dog treats to homemade jams and jellies, colourful pottery, hemp clothing, jewlery, and, uh, ‘rarities’ like utensil wind chimes. You can sample local island delicacies such as chocolate and goat cheeses, all while perusing fresh local produce and to-die-for-breads. Watch for six-year-olds playing the violin – or autoharp, or recorder, or whatever – right in the middle of it all.

3. Wineries
There are several wineries on the island, our faves being Garry Oaks and a relatively new one called Mistaken Identity. Garry Oaks is known for its Fetish, a tasty blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Take a stroll through the lush vineyards at either one – you can practically pluck the grapes off the vine yourself. But don’t – think of the wine!

4. A Mix of Hippie Cool and Upscale Eateries. And Just Plain, Good-old Seaside Eats.
I can’t say enough about SSI’s choice of resos. It’s got upscale European, such as the English tudor-style Hastings House and House Piccolo, tried-and-true Moby’s Pub overlooking the marina, and the local favourite Seaside Kitchen. On the latter, you almost have to be local to find the entrance and the washrooms (watch out that someone from the kitchen doesn’t walk in on you!). It’s also got the best view of ferry-watching that side of the island.

Hands-down, our casual fave is the Tree House Cafe – a funky, outdoor establishment framed by – you guessed it – trees. It’s kinda like dining à la Swiss Family Robinson. This gem of a place offers big and bold breakfasts complete with thick multigrain toast and homemade berry jam. It’s the perfect setting for a hangover-style brunch, or for evening drinks with live folk music as accompaniment. Also a prime spot for people watching: one time we witnessed a guy getting pooped on by the many little birdies inhabiting the trees.

5. Hidden Watering Holes
It seems there’s one around every corner of the island. Whenever we camped on Ruckle, we would stop by a particular one en route to the Fulford ferry terminal to cool off (it’s always sunny on Saltspring – I think it’s almost an island “rule”). Locals and tourists alike swarm this tiny beach, stretching their towels on every bit of available sand. The lake is not too cold, not too deep – just right with a small dock that’s perfect for sunbathing when you just can’t stand the dogs anymore. As long as you don’t mind the kids diving off and splashing everywhere about every five minutes, that is.

One early trip we stumbled upon what we fondly nicknamed “Bits and Bites Bongo Beach” – a long, narrow, tree-lined path opened up to reveal dreadlocked bongo players and, well, hirsute women. Did I mentioned they’re naked?

Above all though, the warmest swimming beach on the island is Vesuvius Bay. I swear we see the same old leathery guy swimming laps in the ocean back and forth every time we stay there.

6. Pixie Pies – and Other Random Roadside Stands
Dotted all over the island are roadside stands with a variety of offerings via the honour system: produce, flowers, lemonade, jams, cookies, and pies. The first time I saw this little cupboard containing the mini-est of pies, I was charmed – but I didn’t have any change. Every time I’ve gone back – armed with coins – the box has been empty. Those pixies are a fickle lot. So, while I’ve thus far never got to try a Pixie Pie, this image will stay with me forever.

7. Long & Winding Roads…
And lots of hills. Saltspring is a perfect setting to learn how to drive a standard (I just had to sneak a pic of the car in there). Imagine the bottom of a very steep hill, my foot on the gas and popping the clutch. A squeal of tires and I was off. We laughed until we cried (and I tried not to wet myself in the process).

8. Famous Local Residents
Saltspring is a home to such celebs as BTO’s Randy Bachman and the artist Robert Bateman, both of whom have residences there. I’ve never seen either of them – then again, that may be the point.

9. The Seafood and the Sea
You can’t beat prawns caught fresh off the boat. Or smoked salmon and crab cakes from a funny little fisherman’s hut called The Fishery, just north of the main town, Ganges. All amazing paired with a glass of cold Pinot Gris on the deck overlooking Ganges Harbour, or the wide-open ocean off Ruckle Park, Fernwood, or Vesuvius Bay.

10. That Laid-back, Small Town Feel
What I love most about Saltspring, though, is the people. They all seem to support each other: such as the local cheese factory displaying their culinary delights on another local artist’s ceramic dish. Best of all, even as a tourist, they remember you (hard not to when we keep coming back every year, I suppose). Case in point: every time we go to market, we stop by our favourite pottery stand to say hi to Annie. One time we picked out some dishes and then shopped around while she wrapped it up. It was only when we got back to Victoria and unwrapped the goods did we notice that she snuck in an extra little nut bowl with a note saying “Happy 4th Anniversary.” Then there was the time when Dan, our B&B host and a captain on the ferry that runs from Vesuvius to Crofton, greeted us over the boat’s loudspeaker with “Welcome back, Cam and Shari” while we were sunning on the B&B deck. Now that’s what I call the personal touch.

– S

Categories: Beach, British Columbia, Dining, Gulf Islands, Sunset, Travel | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Cozumel Christmas

OK, I know it’s a bit early to be talking about Christmas. But then the other day I was looking through some old photos and was reminded of the Xmas that we decided to get the heck out of Dodge and head to Paradise – AKA the island of Cozumel, off the coast of the Mexican Riviera.

It was a little out of character for us, because we always, always host holiday family dinners. So when we announced one year that we were spending Christmas on a beach far, far away, the family was quite surprised. To give you some context, think of the movie Four Christmases – and so we gave each other the gift of sanity that year.

Anyway, after a 6-hour plane ride, one-and-a-half hours on a bus (stopping at every hotel along the way), arriving in Playa del Carmen, waiting an hour for the ferry, and then enduring a 45-minute less-than-smooth sailing, we finally set foot on the beautiful island of Cozumel. It was definitely worth the trek. And so I’d like to share with you the…

Top 10 Things I Loved About Spending Christmas in Mexico

1. Seeing crazy, over-the-top decorations.
Cozumel’s main square devoted itself to gigantic decorated trees, neon signs, nativity scenes, and (naturally) a scary larger-than-life Santa climbing up a ladder to God knows where. Look out below, kiddies.

2. Avoiding the really awful weather back home.
While everyone else was freezing their behinds off, we were sipping a margarita on a lonely stretch of beautiful white sand. ‘Nuff said.

3. Singing Christmas carols in Spanish 
One night, close to the big day, we were eating chile rellenos at an open-air neighbourhood restaurant when we heard some commotion near the street. When we went to check it out, to our delight we discovered a half-dozen local children clustered around a nativity scene at the front of the restaurant, singing carols in Spanish. Recognizing one of the songs as “Silent Night”, we enthusiastically joined them at top volume. The kids, concentrating on their music books and mesmerized by the decorations festooning the place, took no notice of us silly tourists blundering along with them.

4. Zooming around in Purple Pepe 
Access to the beach was a bit of a hike for those of us staying in town, making for expensive cab rides. So we decided to rent a car – more specifically, a convertible. The only one the rental agency had at the time was a 1970s purple Volkswagen bug that we affectionately named “Pepe”. It was an adventure to drive; complete with a stick shift reminiscent of an old school bus. Despite her being old and decrepit, Pepe got us from Point A to Point B just fine, and we were able to get off the beaten touristy track and check out some lovely spots on the less-traveled leeward side of the island. Who cares if it didn’t have a fancy airbag? Or working seat belts, for that matter. The improvised paint job was pretty sweet, though.

5. Going on a snorkelling tour on a rough day
This had to be one of the best, and most challenging, snorkelling experiences I’ve ever had. We connected with a local woman named Rosy Flury, and although the water was quite choppy that day, she determined our experience level to be good enough to go anyway. There was only us and a family of three (from Calgary, no less), which made for a really personal experience. We went to several different reefs, some shallow and some deep, where we were witness to all sorts of slimy and fascinating underwater things during this two-hour adventure. The best part was on the way back, sailing against the freezing wind for 45 minutes. Nothing like protecting yourself from smacking sea spray with just a wet towel and sunglasses.

6. Decorating a palm tree instead of a Douglas Fir
Although it doesn’t have the same effect as its bushier relative, I really liked the look of those purple and green banana pepper lights against the thin palm stalks. Very exotic. I still put them up in our window back home where they blink merrily.

7. Going to Midnight Mass – in another country
Going to Mass on Christmas Eve is crazy popular in Mexico, for obvious Catholic-centered reasons. We visited this particularly ornate church just up the street from our villa one night, and then again on the Eve. For a bit of perspective, check out before and after shots:

Pre-Christmas Eve:

Christmas Eve:

Unlike the previous night, there was pretty much zero chance of getting a seat. So we listened to the sermon from the steps, with about 200 other people. We didn’t understand a word the priest was saying, but since it was Christmas Eve, we had an inkling of the overall message.

8. Diving right off the beach on Christmas day
We spent the day at an intimate beach club, our only other companions a Santa hat-mimosa-drinking tour group. When we felt like cooling off, we just strapped on our masks and fins, waded into the turquoise-blue water, and transported ourselves to another world.

9. Waking up and feeling warm
Yep, you can’t beat waking up late on Christmas day, having a cup of coffee with Bailey’s, taking a swim to clear out the cobwebs, and letting the sun dry you on your patio chair. The hardest part is trying not to gloat while the family back home tells you they just finished shoveling a foot of snow off their driveway.

10. A Christmas sunset on the pier
Better than a pile of discarded wrapping paper and stomach cramps from eating too much.

– S

PS. The family fared just fine without us. Which means we might do it again… soon.

Categories: Adventure, Beach, Mexico, Sunset, Travel | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

A Dozen Ovens

One of my favourite things to do is eat, especially on vacation. There’s something about being away from home, trying different places and styles of cuisine that’s addictive. It can also represent an opportunity for prime people watching. So without further ado, here are some of my most memorable dining experiences in no particular order: the weird, the wonderful, and the quirky…

1. KU DE TA – Seminyak beach, Bali, Indonesia
At some point whenever we’re in Bali, we hit this place – not so much for the food (good but very pricey) as for the atmosphere. The idea is to get there just before sunset, order a chocolate martini (no, really), and get ready to be blown away. Overlooking amazing Seminyak beach, the place seems large enough to be a resort, with lounge chairs on the grass, covered dining areas framing a large pool, and a lounge with long benches and pillowed seats (be prepared to get chummy with your neighbours, who are probably rock stars from, say, Glasgow). For prime sunset-watching, try to score seating on little wooden-type stools that offer a rustic beachy feel. Chill-groove beats abound and the people watching is stellar: you’ll encounter everyone from Aussie trust fund kids to Japanese tourists, surfers and even sheiks and trophy wives. See if you can tear yourself away from the view and the scene to hit the washroom – an experience all its own. (And a great place to cool off, too.) Oh, and don’t forget to look as bored and jaded as possible.

2. The Living Room – Kuta, Bali, Indonesia
Great upscale dining, walkable from KU DE TA. It’s the epitome of how Bali can really dress a place to an exorbitant scale with massive floor-to-ceiling white curtains, chandeliers, white lights, and red velvet settees. True to its name, it did kind of feel like you were in someone’s living room – if that someone happened to be Henry VIII. After an excellent dinner, we headed to the bar to party it up until the wee hours with a couple of Aussie girls we had met at KU DE TA. I swear, if the Balinese weren’t so polite, they would have kicked us out hours earlier.

3. Kinta Mexican Bistro – Cozumel, Mexico
This is an off-the-beaten-track gem of a place on an island that otherwise caters to cruise shippers on day trip mini-benders. You’ll be charmed as soon as you step through the front door and into the funky interior, with its low-lighting and chic art, dazzling bar, and inventive menu (strawberry starfruit martini anyone?). Step along the lit walkway through the garden patio with its hushed privacy amidst mini-palms, where we dined the first (and second) time we graced this little eatery. It’s no Señor Frog’s, and that’s the whole point.

4. Balcony Bar & Restaurant – Byron Bay, Australia
This restaurant’s tagline is, “Be seen on it, not from it.” Step onto a red-carpeted winding staircase and make your way up and through a curtain to the main dining area. Fortunately, that’s where the cheese-factor ends. You are then transported into a wicker-abundant, beachy-type scene. If you’re fortunate to sit outside, prepare to drink in one of the highest views of funky downtown seaside Byron Bay (which, BTW, is reminiscent of BC’s Saltspring Island. Except on more acid). It was here that we feasted on the most unforgettable Moroccan chicken wings while listening to three drunk Aussie girls complain about their dating woes.

5. Chandi – Seminyak, Bali
Located on the main strip in fashionable and gastronomically-diverse Seminyak, this restaurant quickly became one of our regular haunts, with its heavenly combo of Indonesian and Australian cuisine. We initially stumbled upon it while looking for a place to take refuge from shopping in the interminable heat (which, to say the least, doesn’t make Cam a very happy camper). Chandi exudes calm and cool, which instantly put us at ease (that and the fact we weren’t shopping anymore). We settled in lounge chairs surrounded by glass walls, overlooking the street where we could gaze at the poor saps still shopping. Must-tries: watermelon gazpacho soup, crab dumplings and Balinese crispy duck.

6. “Ghost Restaurant” – Sayulita, Mexico
Since this place actually deserves its own blog post, I’ll just give you a snippet of our experience. We were wandering around looking for a break from chile relleno and taco chips when this tiny Italian reso popped up out of nowhere. Desperately needing something to mask my acute back pain (namely red wine), we decided to give it a shot, and it turned into one of the best evenings in Sayulita (what back pain?). However, despite returning there several times, this enigma of an eatery remained closed for the remainder of our trip. We pressed our noses to the windows several nights and saw only upturned napkins and abandoned wine glasses that never moved or got washed. Eventually we concluded our night there obviously never happened at all, but that it would have been a great time, and we were glad we didn’t experience it together. As you can tell, the place messed with our minds.

7. Restaurant Perraudin – Paris, France
Steeped in old-world charm, this French reso in Paris’ Latin Quarter will make you feel like you just stepped into Madame’s own kitchen. It’s quaint and cozy, with red-and-white checked tablecloths, and popular with both students and professors (needless to say, we stood out a little). It’s so homey that the menu is written on the mirror with a white wax pencil. Naturally it’s all in French, so while there, we furtively cracked open our language book to translate, all the while keenly aware of the patrons squeezed in at both sides of our elbows. Boudin noir sounded intriguing until I realized it was blood sausage. After much deliberation, we eventually dug into a rich lunch of beef bourguignon, potatoes gratin, and a hefty bordeaux. We topped off that feast with creme brûlée. I basically didn’t need to eat for 10 hours after that meal. (And I think when I did, it was back to this place.)

8. Jimmy Watson’s Wine Bar – Melbourne, Australia
Hands-down, Melbourne has some of the best eateries in all of Australia. Mind you, I haven’t been to every inch of the place, but this city sure hits the mark when it comes to cuisine variety, affordability, and quality. What I love about Oz is the abundance of wine bars – and Melbourne does not fall short of these. Enter Jimmy Watson’s Wine Bar. I think we tasted pretty much everything on the bar menu, and not because we were flush at the time (far from it), but because the proprietor kept bringing us samples to try (at no charge – how great is that?). Specialty wines, dessert wines, honey wines … oh the honey wines. After a solid while of debauchery, we figured it would be a good idea to actually eat something, and so appeared the tiniest chicken (it was actually a quail) on a plate before us. The poor thing looked so comical, so, well… dead that I had a hard time lifting even a waif-like morsel to my mouth. More honey wine?

9. Unidentified Grotto Restaurant – Saint-Émilion, France
Due to a long time lapse, I can’t recall the name of this particular establishment, but it’s either Le Tertre or La Cote Braisee. In any case, picture a dark, stormy night in a tiny medieval village in the heart of France’s wine country. A torrent of rain, heels slick against the cobblestones running for shelter into an underground wine cellar carved out of solid rock. Once inside, this grotto was strangely welcoming with its candlelight and out-of-this-world smells. And so ensued a storm-filled evening complete with what it seemed like endless amounts of foie gras: on toasts, in salads, stuffed in roast duck (thankfully not in my tarte). Then there was the odd choice of Celine Dion on the stereo. One or two songs, I can deal with. But a whole album? Let’s just say by the time it started round three, we were gone. (If you had a similar experience, please let me know what the restaurant was actually called.)

10. Cafe Batu Jimbar – Sanur, Bali
This is one of my best-loved restaurants in Bali. Located on Sanur’s main drag, this friendly establishment is within walking distance from the lovely beachfront Tandjung Sari hotel and boasts Indonesian and Australian specialties. Although there is seating in the more casual cafe inside, the real treat (sans air conditioning) is the outdoor patio, a great spot for people watching amidst white fairy light-bedecked palm trees. Live music accompanies the scene, from classic jazz numbers to salsa to rock & roll. There’s also a store next door featuring specialty foods, wine, even greeting cards. The best part is you can buy a bottle of wine here and have it uncorked at the restaurant, only paying a corkage fee instead of restaurant bottle prices. Try the gourmet ice cream.

11. Brasserie L’école – Victoria, BC, Canada
Located in (gasp, yes!) my actual hometown, this classic French restaurant remains one of my favourites anywhere. It doesn’t take reservations (bless them, they don’t want to be the type of place that’s booked solid for 3 months), so it’s best to show up early, put your name on the waiting list and then head to one of the many other selections across town for a drink (try the bar at Fiamo). Chances are you will get a table within the next hour or so, and it’s so worth the wait. Once there, cozy up and sink your teeth into the endive salad with bacon, apple, hazelnuts and mustard wine dressing. Pair it with the Albacore tuna. Or sirloin steak with Roquefort butter and frites – ask for the “fancy” version – fries cooked in truffle oil. (I knew someone who once just ordered a side of the fancy frites to go, and then ate the whole lot of them before she got home. It’s that good.)

12. And, of course, Le Resto Ming – Sanur, Bali

– S

PS. This is just a smattering of memorable global dining experiences (it was extremely hard to narrow it down). So keep an eye out for a part two of this series.

Categories: Australia, Bali, Beach, Dining, Europe, France, Mexico, Sunset, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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