Sanur: Home and Away

Well, it’s been a while now since we returned from our favourite place in the world (that would be Bali, for those of you not paying attention) – and let’s just say it’s a bit of an adjustment. But I don’t want to waste your precious reading time lamenting about being back in chilly Canada. This is a postcard about our home-away-from-home: sleepy Sanur.

After dusty, scorching Seminyak and the serene lushness of Ubud, we departed for the golden sands of the southeast coast. Sanur is where we first experienced the magic of Bali, where we discovered a peaceful bungalow-style hotel on the beach, where we made lifelong friends and are always treated like family. With fond memories in tow, we were anxious to get there and start creating new ones.

Once we turned off the main street (Danau Tramblingan) and into the Tandjung Sari driveway, I exhaled deeply. It’s hard to describe the feeling I get when I enter these grounds. It’s like I’ve closed the door on an all-too-busy, crazy, rushed world, retreating into a hidden paradise. The long, narrow, two-laned driveway is lined with palms in the middle and high hedges on either side, only hinting at the bungalows behind it. It’s as if I’ve entered a home in a village, going back into another quiet, simpler time. It’s a feeling of arriving at a place unlike anywhere I’ve been before; someplace safe, warm and welcoming.

As usual, we were greeted warmly by the staff in the receiving area: a huge, open-air pavilion that was once part of a Balinese royal house. Three ceremonial beats on a large gong announced our arrival, and we were given cold towels by a fresh-faced Balinese woman. Happily signing in, we started what was to be a two-week-long reunion with all our old friends and the Tandjung Sari family. Indeed, several times a day we were welcomed with a chorus of exclamations, handshaking, kissing on each cheek (often three times), and lots of Apa kabar (what’s the news?). To which we’d reply: baik, baik (very good – especially since we were there).

The Tandjung Sari beachfront at twilight.

bali hotel twilight

We had booked one of the new garden bungalows (they hadn’t built new ones since the ’90s, so this was pretty special). Bright and spacious, the bungalow boasted beautifully blue tiled floors depicting Balinese themes of animals and birds; industrial-strength air conditioning; a welcome bowl of island fruit adorned with frangipani; a separate room with wash area complete with skylights; and yes… the classic outdoor shower. This time we even got an outdoor bathtub – an essential tool for the cooling-down process, especially after scorching beach days, and yes, our dreaded morning runs along the boardwalk. (This we endeavoured – and succeeded – to do every morning, despite any late activities the night before. It was really the only sane time to do it – that is, if you didn’t want to faint of heat stroke while dodging bikes, scooters, sketchy gangs and, God forbid, the razor-sharp women hawkers who hang around outside the Circle K, just waiting for the next victim to drag down a crowded and confusing alley of shops.)

Outdoor bathtub – Cam’s favourite place to cool off while reading the latest Jack Reacher and sipping a cold Bir Bintang.

bali tub

Shortly after our arrival, I really began to relax. Translation: lots of spa treatments. Fresh fruit peel facial and rose petal face masks, a dual manicure and pedicure (to the tune of $15 Cdn – absurdly cheap compared to the $70 – before tax and tip – jobby I had at home).

And then there was the massage. Not just an ordinary one – it was a Javanese massage. Picture a 4-foot-ish Javanese ibu knocking on your bungalow door with just a sarong and some oil. You dress down to your skivvies, lie on your bed and proceed to get worked over by her magic fingers both back and front. Modesty goes out the window as she transforms your entire body into a lump of jelly and goodness. Her touch is utterly perfect: not too gentle that you can’t feel anything, but not too strong that it starts to get stressful. Perfect for us picky North Americans. Again, absurdly cheap: $20. For an hour and a half. ‘Nuff said.

Then there was the fresh fruit every morning at breakfast: pineapple, papaya, watermelon, even passionfruit or banana juice if you so desired. Not to mention perfectly-baked buttermilk biscuits and Tandjung Sari’s famous croissants: fresh from the oven, with a rewarding puff of steam when you break one open. Everyone swears they are better than what you find in Paris, and we can’t disagree.

Shar on bike along Sanur’s beach boardwalk.

bali shar bike

Our resident family of ginger kucings.

bali kitties

Our third and last week in Bali – what we referred to as our “bonus week” – was spent pretty much planted on the beach, where our biggest decision of the day (aside from what to have for lunch or dinner), was if we should go for a swim in the pool or float on our backs in the 27 degree Indian Ocean.

However, we did manage a day trip to east Bali – to a series of pretty, small fishing villages lining the coast and stemming south from the town of Amed – satisfied our snorkelling urge. The quality was outstanding, with the best part not having to rent a boat to get to the reef. All we did was park on the road, cut through the grounds of an obscure homestay on the beach, step out onto the black sand and put our flippers in the water. A push off the rock and we were transported to a world of angel and Nemo fish, bright blue coral, sea turtles and eels. We let the current take us deeper into the relatively garbage-free water (a treat compared to, say, what we experienced in Nusa Dua) – swimming through warm, cool, and then almost too hot patches – down to a sunken Japanese shipwreck (there are doubts about its provenance, but it was cool nonetheless). We emerged two hours later, and with salt water crust in our hair and cracked lips, rinsed off underneath a rustic communal shower before wolfing down our picnic lunch. Hours later I felt the ill-effects of the classic too-long-in-the-water-without-protection nasty burn, but it was sooooo worth it.

A young woman dances the traditional Balinese legong

bali legong

After the ‘cool’ mountain air of Ubud (28 degrees as opposed to 32 – it makes a difference, believe me) we were once again cozily-wrapped in the hot and humid, even with the ocean breeze. But the warmth of the island doesn’t just come from the elements. It’s in the people, too: their gentle and welcoming nature, their stunning smiles, their genuine interest. During our time in Sanur, a series of invites ensued: drink gatherings, birthday outings (including Cam’s), legong dance performances, art exhibitions, dinners at our friend’s house… so much that we barely had a night to ourselves during our whole two-week stay.

But that’s what I love so much about the Balinese: they are eager to include you and have you take part in their customs (and to practice their English while they’re at it). Just take the wedding we went to in Ubud. It’s just what they do, who they are. And that’s what keeps us coming back.

The full moon and me.

bali shar moon

– S

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Categories: Adventure, Bali, Beach, Dining, Glamorous, Pool, Shopping, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ubud: Serenity Now

Tucked into the Balinese highlands, in the midst of long and lush flora, gently-flowing rivers, and cooling skies, lies Ubud, Bali’s cultural capital. On previous trips to Bali, we’ve only gone to Ubud on day trips perusing silver, batik and wood carving shops while baking in the afternoon heat, stopping to have a kopi es (iced coffee) until we’d gathered enough energy to venture out again. We’d have a grand old time at the monkey forest, or partake in a popular locals’ pastime, such as dining at Ibu Oka’s (for more detail on that, check out one of my previous posts: The Freaky, The Fresh, and the Fabulous).

But listening to other travellers describe how peaceful, even magical, it is to actually stay in and around Ubud made us think differently for this trip. There were stories of incredibly private villas with glorious pools set in the middle of lush rice fields, with a myriad of spa resorts and retreats steps away, where you could rejuvenate, meditate and no-doubt exfoliate yourself to a temporary Nirvana. Many people swear Ubud is the ‘real’ Bali, so we thought we’d give it a try.

We arrived via transport from Seminyak, about an hour away. Our destination was a villa in the outskirts of Ubud proper, in an area called Penestanan. Once our driver figured out how to find our rather elusive and hidden villa, it was crazy to think we could actually have missed it. I took one look at the entrance’s 100 or so steep (and I mean steep) stone stairs and said to Cam, “How are we going to get our suitcases up there?” He pointed to the two frail-looking Balinese women who greeted us on the street and said, “That’s how.” OK – I had to see this.

Without hesitation, each woman took a 50-pound suitcase of ours and placed them ever so gently on their heads. And up the stairs they went. And up. And up some more. By the halfway point, I was panting from just carrying my beach bag. Watching these women, I was respectfully humbled. Who needs bootcamp, anyway?

Pic of our entrance stairs sans incredibly strong ladies (but an equally capable Cam).

The villa is called Rumah Cinta, which translates to the house made out of love. It was humongous – built to contain at least a couple of families. In fact, they closed off half of the house so the two of us occupied the newer half.  The place had all the right things: a large pool and an open-air, stone-built shower (the greatest thing EVER) for starters. It was simply an awe-inspiring place, somehow mystic, comprised of beautiful traditional Balinese architecture as shown in the pic below, which just happened to be above an alcove in our gardens:

(There were so many large and small touches like this that every day we seemed to discover a new gem or another – including many shrines on the property, which received daily offerings.)

Shortly after we settled in, it started raining unlike anything I’ve ever seen or heard. Not the typical long, misty, all-day affairs we get at home. No, it was one of those tropical rainstorms that give little warning and a lot of result: big, hard drops that render you completely drenched almost immediately, umbrella or no.

Our timing was spectacular: getting caught right in the middle as we were walking back from the supermarket. It was so ridiculously loud and intense that we  laughed most of the way… until the aforementioned 100 steps, where we slopped and slipped as we juggled bags and umbrellas all the way up. Despite this, it was a lovely respite from the from dusty, scorching streets of Seminyak. Once somewhat dry, we tucked in for a night of watching the rain from our balcony, relaxing, reading, and drinking Bali Hai beer. We finally succumbed to a long, deep sleep to the tune of a VERY loud singer – what we originally thought was a frog and then later learned it was actually a large gecko – and dreamt of green phosphorescent fireflies (which we really did see – very cool).

View of our villa grounds from the master bedroom balcony during a rainstorm.

We woke up early that first morning and breakfasted at Ibu Putu’s warung, a local’s restaurant just down the path. Ketut, the man whose family manages the villa, met us there to help us prepare for our first-ever Balinese wedding. He had invited us to his brother-in-law’s wedding about five minutes after we arrived. Although we were initially taken somewhat aback, we quickly learned that it’s considered a bit sophisticated to have foreigners at your wedding, especially as we were in the (relative) Balinese sticks. Whatever the case, we were only too happy to oblige to attend as very pale ornaments. Ketut dressed us in layers of fancy sarongs and sashes – required for entering holy sites and temples – and off we went with another couple hailing from – weirdly enough – Edmonton, Alberta.

Ketut led the way through the village, and once at the family compound, we were greeted warmly by the betrothed couple, who then promptly disappeared to adorn themselves in elaborate dress and makeup.

Then we proceeded to wait. And wait. Two hours, many cups of sweet tea, spicy satay, rambutan (a favourite of Cam’s) and several suspicious-looking jellies later, the young couple emerged, snapping us both out of our near-comatose state. The bride and groom then led a procession through the streets to her family’s home for more visiting and eating. As the actual ceremony was not for another several hours, we decided to bow out at that point.

Me with the bride and groom: Koming and Wayan. I’m the one in the middle.

Since we were only in Ubud for three nights, we decided to do yet another thing we hadn’t done before: walk through the Ubud countryside (translation: vast rice fields). While attempting to follow a route suggested in one of our guidebooks (the directions left a bit to be desired), we made a few wrong turns, one in particular that set off a neighbourhood dog in a fit of snarling barks, chasing us back up the slope (much to its owner’s delight).

The trek took about three hours, during which we sighted rice field after rice field, flooding, harvesting, a river gorge and an intricate irrigation system, scarecrows comprised of a combination of stalks, metal and garbage, and miniature shrines. Finally the crooked stone and dirt path spit us out, sweaty, hot and dirty, about 1000 metres from where we were staying. Very convenient.

An old ibu works the fields.
A flooded rice field before harvest.

Although you can pretty much get anything you need in Ubud – massages, manicures, health retreats, yoga studios, sweet organic cuisine – really, there is no need. The place itself is enough – serene and beautiful in its nature alone. It envelopes and captures you with its beauty and raw nature. (Not to mention you could hide out in a warung/homestay and pretty much disappear altogether for months on the cheap.)

I can’t really articulate properly how I felt in Ubud. Some people may describe it as a spiritual connection. Others would say my aura agreed with it, or some other such nonsense. All I know is I felt quiet. I could just clamber up to our rooftop terrace (where the feature photo of this post was taken) and stare into the surroundings all day. Just watch life go by. I felt like I didn’t need to talk, or even think all the time. I felt serene. Or maybe I found something there I haven’t found anywhere else: peace.

Then again, it might have been the Bali Hai – pun intended.
– S
Categories: Adventure, Bali, Dining, Pool, Travel, wedding | 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

Sin City Finale: The Long Journey Home

For those of you eagerly awaiting the final instalment in the epic Vegas trip, it’s time to exhale and enjoy the schadenfreude-al goodness of a day that you didn’t have to experience. For all previous chapters, check out:  Part 1, Part 2 & Part 3.

As well-known high-roller Charles Dickens once wrote: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. As you can gather by that statement, the journey home started off well and then ended… not so well. We were picked up at the Aria by the same limo we arrived in – but, of course! And so just as we arrived, we left.

Moments before I took this picture, this guy said, “I’ll take an 8×10 of that.” And then wished us well.

LAS Arrival in Style
We departed the Aria after saying farewell to our arena-sized room and shortly thereafter arrived at the airport. And, as responsible Canadians, we gave ourselves plenty of time to check in, etc., before boarding. Translation: way more than 20 minutes. We headed up to the first-class check in counter, only to be greeted by a somewhat flustered ticket agent who informed us that we had plenty o’ time to catch our flight, seeing as all Alaska Airlines flights were either delayed or cancelled. When we inquired as to what was going on, he gave us the short version: there was a network failure that basically grounded the entire airline. He suggested that we might be stuck at the LV airport for a couple hours; in the grand scheme of travel, that was no big deal.

Six hours kinda sucked, though.

LAS Terminal 3: Up Close and Really Personal
Yes, it was about six hours. Turns out that during some routine construction, Alaska’s internet connection through Sprint was accidentally cut (literally, the cable was severed), both in Wisconsin and – get this – Seattle as well… which happens to be Alaska’s hub. This minor incident pretty much rendered Alaska’s network dead, so no one could issue boarding passes or check in for flights. Basically, the planes were grounded until it got fixed. Well, at least it wasn’t anything mechanical, I reasoned with myself. No, that came later.

We passed the time by watching shows on our iPad, going to a pub, watching another show, going to another pub, etc., etc. It went on like this for what seemed an eternity. I tried not to think that all this time we could be spending outside in the glorious 34 degree Vegas weather, lying by the pool. OK, maybe not the pool, given my last two experiences there à la Vegas-style douchery, but still.

So after many episodes of Justified and Modern Family, several glasses of pinot grigio and humongous plates of ‘merican food, our plane finally starts boarding. (Of course, Cam was up at the ticket counter every so often trying to figure out what the hell was going on, wrangling food vouchers, bantering with other hapless passengers, and the like. He says it helps pass the time – somebody is always worse off than you, and this turned out to be true, as you’ll see.) Although our connection to Victoria from Seattle had evaporated, it certainly was not forgotten. In fact, we pretty quickly worked it out that there was no freakin’ way we’d make it home that night. Ugh.

Well, at Least We Weren’t Like This Guy
Once settled and safely in the air, the air hostess took pity on us (bless her heart) by pouring us coffee with Bailey’s along with generous glasses of yet more pinot grigio. As we made our way up to cruising altitude, we both noticed a young fellow traveling alone, seated diagonally across from us in first. He looked extremely worse for wear, holding his head in hands for most of the taxiing and looking a particular shade of grey. Cam informed me that he had been chatting with him in the ticket counter line-up. With a sardonic grin, he relayed to me this guy’s deal: he’d been partying in Vegas for a full three days, living it up in the clubs each night (morning?) until 9 am. In fact he thought – as he woke up in a rather stunned and severely hungover haze that very morning – that he was going to actually miss his flight.

Next thing we knew, this guy is standing in the hostess cabin where of course you cannot hang out post 9/11, chatting away and trying to avoid the barf bag the hostess handed him earlier. When Cam passed by en route to the washroom, he gave dude an inquiring look, to which Hangover Harry replied, “I have anxiety attacks sometimes” as a source of explanation. I don’t doubt it in the least. Cam sort of regretted saying to him a bit earlier, “Don’t jump”. Sort of.

Sleepful in Seattle
We arrived in Seattle a good 3.5 hours after our scheduled connection to Victoria. Not that anyone was going anywhere, mind you. We headed straight for the Alaska info counter – we were the first ones there – to figure out what we do next. After an  interminable amount of time, with much sympathetic clucking and tapping of keys from the ticket agent, she informed us that the next – and last – flight to Vic (11 pm) was all booked. We were officially SOL. And so were all the people behind us – and there were many. Still, we managed to secure seats on an 11 am flight the next day – the earliest we could get – and wrangle a nearby hotel. We walked past the extremely long and growing lineup as we made for the exit.

The Airport Hilton was close and comfy, complete with low-lit corridors and bunker-style halls. Cam fondly described it as “virtually charm-free”. But, it did the trick, especially when it came to purchasing provisions, which we had to do since our luggage didn’t make it with us. Of course it didn’t.

The check-in person informed us that the gift store was open for another 15 minutes, so off we went to acquire snacks, deodorant and other various and sundry travel items. It wasn’t until we got to our room that I discovered I had nothing to sleep in. So, off we went back to the store where the overly cheerful clerk greeted us once again, this time enthusiastically gesturing to a particular table with a “buy one, get the other half price” (or something to that effect) t-shirts. We bought two of the worst-looking ones – both with the same Seattle motif – one pink, one grey. Chuckling, we made our way back, only then to discover we’d no toothbrush or toothpaste. (Yes, I really should have taken inventory beforehand. Total rookie move.) I can live without most things for a night, but brushing my teeth isn’t one of them. Of course now that the store was closed, I phoned the front desk, and about 15 minutes later, someone from housecleaning arrived with the much-coveted instruments in hand. At least it was ‘free’.

There’s No Place Like Home
We awoke after a fitful sleep on lumpy pillows and headed to the lobby’s ‘business centre’ to email work (no option for Wi-fi in the room), letting them know we wouldn’t be in for a while, if at all that day. We got to the airport in plenty of time for our mid-morning flight, and everything seemed to be going smoothly as we boarded. We’re almost home! I excitedly thought – a little prematurely… but you know that by now, right?

We’re patiently waiting for the plane to taxi when the pilot makes an announcement that makes my blood run cold (or boil, it could have gone either way): the plane was having mechanical issue with the luggage door. Which meant us and our luggage had to disembark and wait for another plane. And to think we were so close! The pilot didn’t even finish the announcement when a woman across from us (stranded coming back from Mexico with what it looked like as a broken arm), burst into tears. Shaking, she then started begging the man in front of her for some pain killers. I didn’t blame her in the least.

Back we went to the Alaska service counter, where we’d been clocking a significant amount of time. After explaining our situation, the agent prepared us for the worst-case scenario – delay, possible overnight YET AGAIN, as all subsequent flights were booked after this one. No sooner had she told us this when she switched gears and informed us that our replacement plane would be ready in an hour. I wasn’t optimistic. But, this time she was true to her word, and we all clambered back on into the same selection of seats on a different plane.

Forty-five minutes + twenty-four hours later, we touched down on Canadian soil. For someone who absolutely dreads coming home after a vacation, this time I was eternally grateful, and actually was tempted to kneel down and  kiss the ground. The ironic thing was that a day or two later Alaska sent me a customer service survey asking me how I enjoyed my trip. The subject line was “Tell us About Your Latest Flight”. Although the folks at Alaska did a pretty good job of troubleshooting the whole situation, I really didn’t have the heart to blast them – it’s not like the frontline folks cut the blessed cable.

At least my rose was still intact.

– S

PS. OK, you’ve had your schadenfreude, so let me put a balancing coda on this. As of this moment, we’re in the YVR Cathay Pacific First Class Lounge waiting for our flight to Bali via HK (yes again). We’re staying for three glorious weeks, so watch for some genuine weirdness coming your way. In other words, I’ll be blogging. Here’s what first class looks like on CX.

Categories: Adventure, Glamorous, Travel, Unglamorous | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sin City Part 3: Las Metras

Part 3 of our fun-filled stay in Sin City. If you need to catch up, check out Part 1 and Part 2.

Post-pool-party-from-outer-space scene, we return to our mansion/suite to rest a bit after our long day of imbibing, douchery and sensory overload (if I saw another mojito or drooling guy in a cowboy hat it would have been way too soon). Plus, we needed to reserve some energy for the big night ahead: Metric at the House of Blues in the Mandalay Bay hotel. (BTW, we had no idea who Shpongle was, but Wikipedia did.)

Me in our massive conference room before the show.

Metric on stage. I know this pic is not exactly a close-up, but trust me: that’s really Emily Haines at the keyboards. Best I could do with my iPhone 3, which has only sneaker-zoom (i.e., walk closer to your target).

Still, pretty damn awesome venue for the ultimate intimate experience.

Although it was a real rock ‘n rolla of a show (including an acoustic version of “Gimme Sympathy” for an encore), the one disappointment was it only lasted an hour or so. I couldn’t understand it until a colleague of Cam’s said that’s typical LV: show lengths are sometimes limited (especially those with a casino close by) in order to get people back to the slots. Maybe that’s just a myth, but to someone who doesn’t even really gamble, I found it simply maddening.

We ended the night with our own little concert – blasting Metric and dancing in our hotel suite, adrenaline pumping. That’s when I truly appreciated (and used) all of our space.

Next day, back at pool. This time we went to the ‘public’ pool and settled in for some relaxation – for real this time. Or so we thought. In some ways, it was like Liquid all over again, but this time it was the redneck-trashy version. The girls in the pic below were pretty tame; it was the 20-person, middle-aged, we-left-the-kids-at-home gang that drove us (OK, me, really) over the edge. Beers, cocktails, cigars, cigarettes, shouting, drunken-picture taking, splashing, and all of the body piercings and tattoos you would expect in such a gathering. In one comical scene, Drunky McBachelorparty pitched a cell phone to his buddy in the pool which splashed down about 30 feet short of its intended target. Ba-bye, iPhone – we hardly threw ye.

Well, you don’t come to Vegas to rest (or save money), that’s for sure. We eventually abandoned this scene to do a walkabout on the strip, and I just have to share some over-the-top Vegas shots.

Classic clash of cultures: a Thai shrine with a backdrop advertising Donnie and Marie performing at the Flamingo.

Our very own 15-foot chocolate dragon on display at the Aria. Like, seriously?

That evening, we decided to go for martinis and a shrimp cocktail in the Eiffel Tower restaurant (to the tune of $96 US!). And there was only three drinks between the two of us.

But, the fun view was worth it:

For something a little less exorbitant, we decided to take a friend’s advice and hit up the popular off-the-main-drag Firefly Restaurant. Potent martinis, delish tapas, cheap prices, oh my! So what if it overlooked a strip mall parking lot? Ambience isn’t everything!

– S

PS Stay tuned for the final chapter of the story – our EPIC trek back home and the joy of unglamorous travel.

Categories: Dining, Glamorous, Pool, Travel | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sin City Part 2: Welcome to the Doucheteria

This is Part 2 of our highly-amusing Vegas Vacation; if  you need to catch up, see Part 1.

We wake up Saturday morning feeling a bit groggy and out-of-sorts. Decide the best treatment is to grab some provisions from the hotel’s pharmacy/grocery/clothing store/liquor store and head to one of the Aria’s four pools for the day. It was a balmy 31 degrees and not a cloud to be seen. We go to scope out the area and discover that aside from the three common pools, there is also a ‘private’ club, with a semi-secret entrance complete with a roped area and no visibility from the outside. Intrigued, we asked a friendly twenty-something-ish fellow at a random kiosk on the property what the deal was. He was more than happy to help, showing us the menu, giving us free passes, and letting us know that the ladies get free champagne until 1:00 pm. We thought: “Why not?” Let’s be exclusive for the day. So, and after going back to the room to grab our day pack, we headed for the Liquid Pool Lounge, full of naive hope and excitement that we’d be experiencing a genuine slice of what Vegas is all about.

I’ll say we did. After lining up to get in (not much of a challenge at 11 am), we were subjected to a bag search, during which we had to rid ourselves of our beloved camera. Somehow, I knew this place would warrant a blog post – and some juicy photos to accompany it, so I wasn’t too happy about that. Anyway, Cam offered to run it back up to the room (at least a 20-minute trek), while I secured us seats in the lounge. Once in, I was a bit overwhelmed; I’m bad enough at making decisions of any kind and it was worse here because I had no idea which seats were what price (although I could guess the cabanas were probably the priciest of the joint). After I (tentatively) decided on a spot, Cam appeared sans camera, and we were read the minimums. Turns out the minimum you could spend for sitting by the pool in a lounge chair was $400. To sit by the pool! Cam and I had a good laugh at that, somewhat to the chagrin of our server, who was perfectly serious. We even had to sign an acknowledgement stating that we agreed to spend that much. Oh well – I could think of worse ways to spend money in Vegas (I don’t think I need to go so far as to list them). So much for the free champagne – what was the point? We had to spend some serious cash! Our servers then laid our towels, brought us a bucket of water and a couple of mojitos, and we sat back to take it all in.

At first it was quite subdued, and certainly it was beautiful and the service was pretty amazing. It was so weird – so surreal – with the collection of douchey guys, Fake Plastic Trees (AKA girls who have had a lot – and I mean a lot – of work done). After a while, things ramped up quickly, and the overall debacherous atmosphere was overwhelming and included not-so-subtle features like sparkly bikini-clad dancers who suddenly appeared on two podiums rotating their bottoms and attempting to look jaded and ultra-cool. Well, they probably were genuinely jaded. My second thought after Cam announced “check out the dancers!” – and I think you can guess my first thought – was: are they going to start stripping? But apparently, Liquid is way, way too classy for that, so the “clothes” – more like minuscule scraps of material – stayed on.

Here’s a fairly tame image of the scene, before the party really got started:

Click here for a flavour of the clientele this place attracts, especially after a few pitchers. So much for not allowing cameras!

As the afternoon wore on, things definitely got stranger.  And people got drunker. Way drunk in many cases. There was the arrival of the San Diego Takeover – a group of women from – you guessed it – San Diego, who occupied one of the many $1500 day beds. Then random douches – including one in particular who was lip-syncing along to the booming music catering to the super-trashed – and the Euro-douche, who creepily scoped out the scene on his very own day bed. Then there was the gaggle of cheerleaders of varying falsity – and all blonde – except for a token brunette. Let’s just put it this way: as time went by, the skirts got shorter and the tattoos somehow grew more elaborate and abundant. Although I had my lay-by-the-pool book with me (Fifty Shades Darker – which turned out to be the perfect choice for this kind of scene), I could barely read more than a sentence at a time. And it was usually the same sentence. The scene was really that entertaining.

Meanwhile, Cam and I were trying our hardest to spend our $400. You’d think it be pretty easy with pitchers of mojitos going for $60 each, and tiny Fiji water bottles for $12, but alas, we found it a struggle. One of the reasons was because we wanted to stay relatively sober for the Metric concert that evening. Despite Liquid’s hedonistic nature, I’ll say one thing for it: the food was excellent. Expensive, yes, but definitely in the yummy zone. Which goes to show you can get decent food just about anywhere on the Vegas strip.

Finally, after almost four hours of hilarity, we decide to call it quits, partly because the music was making us bleed out our ears. Our waitress, who was undoubtedly one of the smarter ones there, took pity on us and sent us home with a goody bag to bump us up to our minimum. 2 bottles of water, a can of Red Bull, and two shots of Don Julio tequila shots later (at a go of $45 each), we left the place at $399 + tax + gratuity. Yeah, I never thought I’d pay that much to sit drinking and eating by the pool, but at least I could honestly say I got my money’s worth in epic people-watching.

And, we will never, ever do that again. Ever.

– S

PS  In case you’re wondering, those cabanas I mentioned went for three thousand bucks each, although they did seem to come pre-populated with several douches/douchettes. Reserve yours now!

Categories: Adventure, Pool, Travel | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Sin City – A Trilogy in Four Parts (with apologies to Douglas Adams)

OK, I know I haven’t written for AGES. Truth is, I haven’t gone anywhere for, well… AGES. Assuming that you don’t count numerous jaunts to the BC mainland to visit my awesomely cool sister and her family in Maple Ridge – I don’t. We’re also saving our pennies for our three-week extravaganza in Bali this November. But this isn’t about Vancouver or trips to come; it’s about Vegas.

This year, we decided to forgo the traditional Canadian Thanksgiving at home where, as per usual, we would have hosted the family. If you’ve been reading any of my older posts, you’ve heard a similar rant and may have noticed that we are starting to rebel more often, making the ‘escape’ at Christmas, Easter, and now Thanksgiving to other parts of the globe. But this isn’t about holidays and family; this is about Vegas!

(BTW, our trip was so hilariously cool in so many ways, from our arrival to our stay and then the journey home [well, that wasn’t so much cool than epic] that it warrants multiple posts – hence the title.)

So to the beginning… we’re on our way to Vegas to see one of our most favourite Canadian bands: Metric. We proceed through security in Victoria, which is generally very routine except for the fact that I was randomly selected to be searched, with the choice of being patted down or going through that fun little X-ray booth thingy, spread-eagled and exposed. Considering the fact that I was wearing a dress, I chose the latter. Five seconds later I was considered threat-free.

Fast-forward to the Vegas airport. Satiated with a few glasses of wine courtesy of the first-class section, we’re waiting for our luggage when Cam nudges me and points over to an official-looking man wearing a suit and holding up a sign with our names on it. Turns out Cam not only hired a car service to pick us up, it’s a stretch limo. Why not? I was surprised and elated, as witnessed by everyone else around the luggage carousel. Off we went with Mr. Limo (his name is Paul), and upon stepping into the massive car, I was kindly given a red rose and a bottle of champagne. Since the distance between the airport and Vegas Boulevard isn’t very far, and the fact that the car was booked by the hour, Paul took us for a cruise up and down the Strip. There we were, the two of us in a six-person limo, drinking champagne and watching the freakshow go by. Not a bad way to arrive in Sin City.

After our tour, we stumbled out of the limo to the door of the Aria, our hotel. A massive glass tower, this hotel is one of the classier places in Vegas; most notably where the casino doesn’t dominate your every waking moment and movement – a refreshing change.

Aria’s dancing water fountain.

The Aria’s interior is modern and cool, all marble and glass, and relatively smoke-free – another bonus. We reached check-in and after waiting about 15 or so minutes in line, managed to work our way up to the front counter. There we encountered a bit of a snafu; we had originally booked for two nights, but then shortly before our departure changed it to three. That means we had two separate vouchers for our stay that basically didn’t connect. In short, they didn’t have a room for us. We quickly sobered up. The party couldn’t be more over.

So after much wrangling, questioning, waiting for dude to finish talking to his manager and get us a room – any room for Christ’s sake – Cam put on his mad face and decided to talk to the manager himself. I’m not quite sure what he said, but I’m assuming that it wasn’t too pretty… the results were somewhat spectacular: dude gave us the second-largest room in the place. Ya, okay, maybe it pays to kick up a fuss once in a while.

We then proceeded to a) find the elevator, which after much corner-turning and bumping into walls and slot machines, we found, and then b) proceeded to find our actual room. Anyone who’s been to Vegas knows how much of a time investment it can be getting to, say – the pool to your room and back – but in our case, just getting to it from the elevator was about a 10-minute trek along a long, dark plush corridor where every corner and cranny looked exactly the same. God forbid you swayed left instead of right at a fork – which, in Cam’s case, you would have to backtrack to the right path. So, after much mumbling and grumbling, the champagne and limo long forgotten and my rose starting to droop, we arrived at our room. It’s at the very end of the corridor – any further and you would run smack right into a window. We opened the door.

I suddenly stop mid-rant. I try to take it all in, not quite believing what I see in front of me. It’s huge. Put it this way: it had its own foyer. Marble floors, a full living room suite, five televisions, king-sized bed, floor-to-ceiling windows, a shower bigger than some of Cam’s first apartments, and get this: our very own 12-person seated conference room. Conference room! We figured the whole thing was about 2,000 square feet. Basically the size of our house. Here’s a little glimpse:

View from conference room.

Living area.

From living room to conference room and bar area.

Bedroom.

Beer enjoying the view.

By this time we were so giddy with wine and exhaustion that we threw our belongings on the floor (we had so much goddamn room that it didn’t really matter, and besides, the only time I relish being messy is in a hotel on vacation) and ordered room service, which we ate up at the marble bar. The best spaghetti bolognese I’ve ever had, even compared to what I consumed in Italy. Vegas really does a top-notch job with cuisine. OK, so maybe it was worth the one-hour check-in process.

Stay tuned for Part 2 – douches, dancers and debauchery.

– S

PS. With all the modern tracking systems these days, it’s very advisable not to touch anything in the mini bar that you don’t intend on actually using. To wit, we got charged $60 for a martini shaker that I happened to pick up and shake, exclaiming, “check out this martini shaker!” and $20 for a bag of crisps we moved an eighth of an inch out of the way to get to the vodka.

Categories: Glamorous, Travel | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

The Freaky, the Fresh and the Fabulous

From a rustic beach fry shack to fine-dining at the Eiffel Tower (well, in Vegas), I’ve had some pretty varied and unique foodie times. While traveling, Cam and I tend to shy away from all-inclusives (with the exception of one or two no-brainer getaways), instead opting to frappe la rue on our own and explore. To me, not only the cuisine but the actual dining experience is all part of the unknown, the weirdness of travel that often makes a good story. (We have another litnus test of how good the restaurant is by what their bathroom facilities look like. I’ll save that for another post.)

Since I refrained from listing every funny little place I’ve been to in my last post of a similar nature (A Dozen Ovens), here’s the second part of some weird and wonderful foodie scenes. Let’s start with one of my favourites…

1. Ibu Oka  Ubud, Bali
Our driver Made accompanied us to this Ubud, Bali institution in the heart of the mountains, where the specialty is fried Babi Guling (suckling pig). The scene is rustic, the menu basic with a choice of four different combinations: Special Suckling Pig (with rice), Different Suckling Pig (also with rice, not entirely sure what’s ‘different’), Suckling Pig Meat, and just the Pig Skin. Grab some Indonesian fruit tea, have a seat on the floor and get cozy with your neighbours. Personally, I found it the whole meal extremely fatty, so I mostly ate just the meat sans skin, giving the rest to Cam and Made. But it was a must-do and undeniably an unforgettable experience. If you go, don’t forget to collect your shoes from the massive pile on your way out.

2. Tapas Bar in San Sebastian – Spain
The old quarter in San Sebastian was home to my first tapa dining experience. Basically, we tried to do what every good tourist should do: follow the locals. So we walked in pretending like we’d been there a hundred times (we couldn’t have been more green), casually sidled up to the bar (more like carefully picking our way through hoards of leering Spanish men), and helped ourselves to the dizzying array of itsy bitsy bites lining the bar (well, I might have wrinkled up my nose and given some the sniff test). The whole time we wondered how anybody would know how much we ate, or who was keeping track for that matter. Turns out the bartender had a pretty sharp pair of peepers, because by the end he had a tally of everything we touched, even including a few glasses of the local vino (which we ordered via the pointing system). He gave us the bill itemized on the back of an old receipt and we were done. Oh, and food was awesome – everything from fresh prawns to thin proscuitto on crostinis – and the atmosphere crowded, smoky and alive.

3. Pizza Venezia – Sayulita, Mexico
Along a dusty, lone Mexican village road appears what at first seems like a mirage, and then turns into a bright yellow surfboard. On it boasts the menu of Pizza Venezia, a place that is both a feast for the eyes and the stomach. All bright reds and yellows and brick, this fire wood oven, thin-crust pizza joint is home to some gutsy Italian-turned-surfer who landed in Sayulita sometime within the last three years. Apparently he liked it so much he decided to stay a while. Delicious and refreshingly uncomplicated, the pizza pies were cheap (an extra-large pie put you back a mere 90 pesos – about $6 Cdn). Perfect for a late-night snack on the way home, the rest saved for a picnic on the beach the next day.

4. Le Baiser Salé – Paris, France
Le Baiser Sale translates to “The Salty Kiss”. Being avid jazz buffs, Cam and I decided to hit up this place after we attempted to get into another jazz club where the cover charge back in ’04 was 25 euros (about $50 Cdn back then). This was at a time when the Canadian dollar was at an all-time low, mind you, but still – $50 to get in? Each? Even though they were open to negotiation (the price got lower as we began backing out of the club), we decided to move on and stumbled upon Le Baiser Sale. Despite the fact that it was ‘only’ $25 to get in, it turned out to be one of the best jazz clubs we’ve ever been to. I’m including it in this dining post because they did serve food – mostly snacks to accompany your champagne – but I think that counts. Enter via an outdoor patio, sweep past a bar and up a narrow staircase to a small, dark room with a makeshift bar and a stage – and when I say stage, I mean a basic platform of sorts. The sheer intimacy of the place was astounding: as four young guys belted out classic Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson, we were so close we could feel the beat pulsing in our chests; see the spit and the sweat. It was like they were playing just for us.

5. Hu’u Bar & Grill – Seminyak, Bali
Picture a dark and romantic outdoor setting, the tropical breeze tickling your bare shoulders as you stroll along the poolside patio under white canopy and twinkling fairy lights. Now imagine the delish taste of duck crepes as you dine surrounded by mosaic-like decorative busts and low-hung chinese lanterns, with cool hip groove beats filling the air. And, if you want your own private dining experience, there’s always the cozy dining day-beds strewn about the property. The food is pretty decent, but it’s really the ambience that keeps us coming back. Where else do you get to lounge about on huge white pillows while sipping on a lychee nut martini? Who knows: you may just run into Paris Hilton partying it up right next to you.

6. Lobster on Booby Cay Beach – near Negril, Jamaica
Let’s face it: this is no fancy hotel dining, or drinks by a hip poolside bar. It doesn’t get more fresh, and I mean really fresh than having your lunch cooked for you right on a sandy cove in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. I think these lobsters were caught maybe 20 minutes before, and the next thing you know they’re on the grill. Delightfully delish. Have Famous Vincent take you over to the island.

7. Kayu Manis – Sanur, Bali
This funny little place is slightly off the beaten track, some distance from the touristy throngs on Sanur’s beach boardwalk. After reading some decent reviews on Trip Advisor, we had our hotel make us a reservation. Still, it took us a while to find it in the dark, and after wandering around for an hour, we found it tucked just off the street, surrounded by trees and tropical flora. Even at 8 pm, the interior was sweltering hot, and much to our dismay, they didn’t serve any booze aside from the local beer. We forgave them because the food was good; however, when we tried to get the bill, they wouldn’t let us pay, no matter how much we insisted. Suffice to say both parties were very much confused. So, we ended up leaving without paying. For some people this is a dream; for us just felt downright strange and wrong. Totally bewildered, we relayed the story to our hotel hosts, who were just as confused as we were. Then about a week later, the restaurant phoned our hotel to say that someone from the restaurant was coming to pick up the money for our tab. Seriously! Poor Cam had to run about to get cash from the money exchange, put it in an envelope, and have it at the front desk for pick-up. So much for thinking we got it comped because they thought we were movie stars.

8. Eiffel Tower Restaurant – Las Vegas, Nevada
For a special occasion, a completely decadent experience (or if you just can’t get to Paris, France for the weekend), the Eiffel Tower Restaurant in Vegas is a must-try. It’s pretty close to the real thing, its authenticity bolstered (pun intended) by makeshift tower beams jutting through the walls, an almost pitch-black interior, and a martini bar to die for. My sister and her husband came with us to Vegas last year for a special birthday of mine (see A Most Un-Glamorous Journey for more on that trip), and although my sister got sick the night of my birthday dinner, we still enjoyed a romantic evening for three. Attended to by at least four tuxedo-clad servers (who all seemed ecstatic to be serving us), this restaurant boasted an incredible view of the main strip, notably the fountain show at the Bellagio. It oozed romance and yes, a bit of a cheese-factor, albeit classy cheese. An appetizer of roasted foie gras for $28? Why not? You may as well really splurge and have the Filet Mignon for $56. It’s totally worth it.

9. Random Restaurant at the top of Mt. Batur – Bali
Although the view to Gunung Batur is clearly incredible, the touristy and crowded buffet-style restaurant perched on a cliff at the side of the road wasn’t. Think exorbitant tourist prices for a measly, fly-ridden selection of fried rice, dried-up satay, and wilty greens. I won’t even get into the state of the washroom. Not to mention it was so windy up there, my bad food practically flew off my plate. (To be fair, that’s not the restaurant’s fault). Anyway, an obvious tourist trap, but what can you do – not a lot of choice way up in the middle-of-nowhere-mountains. The only thing that tasted somewhat okay was the prickly red rambutan fruit – plus it was really cool and exotic-looking.

10. Burrito Revolution – Sayulita, Mexico
A Sayulita institution, Burrito Revolution is a gem of a place, with burritos the size of babies and sauces with different spice levels (hint: watch out for the whitish one – very spicy). Although you can sit inside, it mostly caters to the grab-and-go people. Make sure you get lots of napkins, because within one bite you’ll be wiping the delicious stuff off your mouth and chin. Incredibly fresh, handmade  and hot – think smoked marlin wrapped up with tomatoes, beans and fresh guacamole. Come hungry and prepare to wait a bit – you’ll be glad you did. The last time we were there, the proprietor let us have a taste of the newest thing on the menu: tacos (yummy). And, you gotta love their awesome sense of humour – I just had to take a picture of this sign!

– S

Categories: Bali, Dining, Europe, France, Glamorous, Jamaica, Mexico, Spain, Travel, Unglamorous | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Traveling Critter Diaries

Bonding with creatures in a foreign land – whether it’s on the cliffs of Negril, off Bali’s Indian Ocean or even the Pacific shores of Sayulita – is always an adventure. Mind you, I’m not too disappointed when it doesn’t happen, but it’s always a fun and unique experience when it does. Seeing as both Cam and I love animals and amphibians (I’m somewhat less inclined toward insects or massive hairy arachnids), I thought I’d share a few snapshots of our favourite critters from around the globe.

1. The Yowly Bungalow Kitty – Sanur, Bali
This grumpy little meower was constantly hanging around, lurking by one of the stone statues, creeping up the steps, or hanging off of the roof. Wherever it was, it would always let out a howler (or three) of a greeting, but would never let you get close enough to pet. In any case, Yowly was good – albeit distant – company, and always seemed to take us by pleasant surprise when we were having our late afternoon shower outdoors or sitting on our porch drinking kopi bali. I have a feeling life wasn’t all catnip and lazy mice for this one, though, judging by the not-so-impressed expression on its face.

2. Pups  West End, Negril, Jamaica
Pups (our clever nickname) was the dog of one of the caretakers from a villa property we stayed at on Negril’s dramatic cliffs. Pups immediately won us over with her friendly manner and infectious ‘smile’. She would wait for us by the gate when we came home from a day’s adventure, and then proceed to lounge in a patch of sunshine on the deck while we wound down. Other times she would play with my feet or sniff at Cam’s Red Stripe (that’s a beer, not a laceration). Although young, Pups was an excellent watchdog, knowing instinctively who should be on the property and who shouldn’t. She wasn’t a big fan of the water, though. Every time we decided to hang out at our private cove by the cliff’s edge, she would stand at a safe distance, barking at any wave that dared come too close to the rocks. A bit unusual for an animal who resided so close to the sea, but we accepted her for her loveable quirks nonetheless.

3. The Casa Iguana – Sayulita, Mexico
In Mexico, iguanas are about as common as tortillas, so it was no real surprise to encounter this enigmatic creature who suddenly appeared one late afternoon at our villa. We saw it only a couple of times, usually when we were floating in the pool or quietly reading in the shade. Out it would crawl from some nearby bush, and slowly and carefully inch its way across the warm rocks in its attempt to blend in with nature. It would then become a statue of sorts, soaking up the sun and occasionally eating the blue flowers growing nearby. (If you look closely you can see some petals in its mouth.) I could almost reach out and touch it. Almost. I kinda didn’t want to, though.

4. The Shrine-Wrecker – Seminyak, Bali
We were having a casual dinner at one of our favourite beach bars in Seminyak called Ku De Ta when this mischievous kitty jumped up on a shrine and began foraging for cookies and rice, knocking all of the prayer offerings asunder in its haste. Luckily I had my camera at the ready and managed to capture a genuine “Busted!” expression on its face (see featured photo at the top of this post). It didn’t seem to care much though, as it had obviously hit the late-lunch jackpot.

5. The Neighbourhood Happy Cat – Sayulita, Mexico
This was one of my favourite cat encounters while on holiday. This wide-eyed stunner just appeared at our door one evening and waltzed right into our villa (hard not to do when the climate demands doors be perpetually open). Fortunately it seemed to belong to someone, and so was free to roam around at will instead of having to look for food. Not in the least shy, this kitty would walk right up to you and wrap its little paws (sans claws) around your ankle, wanting to play, play, play. It visited us a few times around the same time every day, and I grew so attached that I missed it when we left.

6. The Whites – Mayfield Falls, Jamaica
Happily wagging away, this trio of strays greeted us outside the falls like old friends, snipping and playing with each other as if they didn’t have a care in the world. They kept a watchful eye as they followed us to the van though, sensing an opportunity for something more. Unfortunately all we had were limes, so they had to settle for a pet (or three).

7. The Cocky Cockatoo – Hamilton Island, Australia
I don’t know what it is with creatures and timing. Even this noisy little bird would appear on the railing of our posh beach club room at the same time every day, chirping and cackling. One time it actually flew into the room. Promptly unnerved by my surprised shrieking, it settled for a casual perch the railing for the rest of our stay, cackling away. Note the people watching from the infinity pool below.

8. Barfs – Sanur, Bali
“Barfs” is what we nicknamed a pathetic little dog that would roam Sanur Beach at twilight, making these heartbreaking gagging sounds, somewhere between a bark and a cough. It would never venture very close to us, mostly keeping to itself and sniffing under chairs for scraps left by beachgoers. We felt so sorry for it that we considered feeding it some of Cam’s boozy birthday cake, made for us by the kind hotel folks. As delish as this cake was the first time, every time we opened our bar fridge thereafter the strong smell of booze would make our stomachs turn (especially at 6 am). When we finally decided to give some to this poor little thing, he disappeared. Sorry, Barfs.

9. The Cutest (and Smartest) Pair of Hustlers – Negril, Jamaica
Anyone who’s traveled to a developing country has experienced the stray-animal-in-the-restaurant scenario, at least to some degree. It almost always involves canine or feline, usually pretty scruffy, with matted hair and an emaciated body. Patiently (or not so patiently), they wait for table scraps either dropped or given to them by hand. Or, you can get two real cuties like these who avoided common nuisance tactics. Instead, they let us know they were there with a couple of soft subtle mews, and then proceeded to watch us from across the patio. Although I admired them for it, it didn’t really matter in the end; they had me at first glance. What – I’d like to see you resist these adorable faces.

10. The Monkey on My Head – Bali
This memorable moment occurred on my first trip to Asia, when I was still a naive tourist (not like now – jaded and suspicious at every turn… just kidding). We were at a monkey forest up in the island’s highlands, getting a tour of the forest and its inhabitants. Of course, we’d been warned that monkeys like to pinch anything of value – wallet, keys, camera. However, no one told me they might end up jumping on your head. One minute we were in the middle of observing a mother cleaning her baby; the next an adult monkey had gotten a hold of my leg and started scrambling and clawing its way up my torso. I hardly had time to react before the crazy thing was holding on tight to my hair, grabbing for some nuts in the guide’s hand, which was of course right over my head. I realized it was all a plotted plan when the guide signalled Cam, who quickly snapped a pic. I’m sure glad we could all work as a team to make it happen.

– S

Categories: Adventure, Bali, Beach, Jamaica, Mexico, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

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