Monday, 15 May 2017

Travelling with the Sisterhood - Manhattan, NYC


Last fall, I was invited to join the Facebook group, 'Girls In New York City'. Inspired by a previous trip some 19 years ago, some friends from Canada's East Coast decided they were overdue for a repeat performance.  As it turned out, their timing coincided perfectly with my initiation into retirement and a commitment to myself via my bucket list to see more of the world and spend more time with the women in my life.


Eventually, the group narrowed down to five savvy women and, yes, I'm counting myself in that demographic.   I was more than a little curious--one might even say a tad apprehensive--about how I would fare on this adventure. My two primary concerns were whether I  would enjoy the constant exposure of four other human beings over five days; and, as much as I love women, we can be pretty intense at times.  I also wasn't sure how I would handle the sensory overload that is NYC.  I am a prairie farm girl, after all and, if that in itself, doesn't suggest copious amounts of 'alone time', I've been running a home business as its sole employee for the past 11 years!   



At about the same time I realized our little travel group had an abundance of strong personalities, it also became apparent that there were diverging interests.  We found agreement on some of the key items such as what part of Manhattan we wanted to stay in and what Broadway show we should book.   As I was in charge of booking accommodations, I admit a moment or two of panic when my travelling companion received a text suggesting that my choice was dangerously less than satisfactory (emphasis on dangerous).  We soon realized the hoax when the the following order was to arrive with food and more wine, tagged with a photo of a building that was clearly not where we were staying. It seems we had at least one, if not three, pranksters in our midst!

Admittedly, there were a few times when our individual passions were surpassed only by the copious amount of wine consumed but, honestly, I thought we did amazingly well, considering we had five women, two bedrooms and only one bathroom. . . and did I mention, lots and lots of passion?  Evenings were filled with lively debate and peels of belly laughs and I really couldn't imagine this trip with any other group of women.  Okay, it's true, I loved every single moment of it!

As I had agreed to sleep on the pullout couch in the living-room, I was grateful to see that, while not exactly private, there was some semblance of separation. I'm not particularly shy about my body and, while I tried to maintain at least some modesty for the sake of my room mates, the pretense of a waist high bookcase masquerading as a privacy screen only goes so far.  To my knowledge, no one went home permanently damaged from the full impact of  all or part of my naked body first thing in the morning.  Overall, we were pleased with our clean, comfortable, and perfectly located home-away-from-home, literally steps away from Times Square, the Port Authority and a number of other NYC highlights. If you don't believe me, 52 traveler reviews rate it 4.8/5.  And here's the best part:  there's also a second one-bedroom unit, perfect for a couple or someone traveling with a small child.   AND, there's a jewelry business on the main floor where you can make purchases! If you want to know more, check out the links below.
Our first day in the City we decided we would do the Hop On, Hop Off Bus. . . BIG MISTAKE! Perhaps we should have caught on shortly after we left the condo, when the pouring rain turned to a veritable onslaught of rain, requiring both rain coats and umbrellas, and leaving them both leaking. . . but we didn't.  Perhaps we should have realized we had made a poor choice when we found ourselves slogging through water more than 100mm deep, but we didn't.  Or, perhaps when our jeans were so thoroughly soaked that they literally wicked water up our thighs, soaking us through to the skin; but we didn't.  The dead giveaway was when a dozen or so cell phones went off mid-tour announcing flood warnings throughout Manhattan and NYC.  Suffice to say, the day was a wash, in more ways than one.  While it may not have been raining on the bus, we were definitely not warm, as there seemed to be an aversion to turning on the heaters.  And because there was no heat, the windows fogged up, which meant no visibility.  True, it was not our best decision but we did much better after that.

Everyone was really excited about going to see a Broadway performance. . . everyone, that is, except me. I honestly had no idea what to expect, and therefore, I had no real expectations and, without expectations, it was unlikely I would be disappointed.  I thought it might be good and I knew the talent would be great, if only because one of my travelling sisters is, herself, an actress as well as a trusted friend.  She chose 'Waitress' which I wasn't familiar with, nor was I familiar with the music.  When she excitedly announced that Sara Bareilles had the lead. . . the name meant nothing.  When she directed us to Sara's recent pop hit on U-tube. . . still nothing. But truth be told, I was harboring a wee bit of resentment because the show I really wanted to see what 'Beautiful', based on Carol King's early career. . . and who could possibly not love Tapestry?  Why, I could sing the entire album if they would only let me!  Fortunately, I was not alone in that desire so a decision was made to split up.  Three of us went to 'Beautiful' while two went to see 'The Glass Menagerie' with none other than Sally Field!  Not only did they see Sally perform, they met her too! That, in itself, was a heady experience for them.


I have to say, we were all wowed by our choices and honestly, I couldn't quite imagine how 'Waitress' was going to beat 'Beautiful' but the following night we marched our way into a kilometre long lineup to see Sara Bareilles in the lead and, once again, I was totally amazed and impressed.  A Broadway show is more than just a defining element of NYC, the caliber of every aspect of the production from musicianship, acting, set design, stage lighting, even the theatre itself, is awe-inspiring.  The sets were so slick, I'm still trying to figure out how they so gracefully and seamlessly moved on and off the stage.

We booked a walking tour through Harlem Heritage Tours, where all guides are born, raised and still live in Harlem. I was hoping for one of the old men that I read often guided but instead we got the youngest guide, Neal Shoemaker.  We soon found ourselves seated in the Canaan Baptist Church singing and clapping and generally having a great time.  We weren't allowed to take photos, and this video doesn't even begin to typify the sound reverberating from the choir, but it will give you a good idea of the experience which we all loved.

It wasn't long before we discovered that Neal was really showing us his Harlem, starting with the projects he grew up in and where his mother continues to live to this day.  He made no secret that there was a time when Harlem was a pretty harsh environment to be growing up in but the Harlem he showcased was anything but.  It was evident that our guide was well known and respected and true to the lyrics of the song, everybody really did know his name! There are myriad tours to fit everyone through this group; if I were to go back, I think I would sign up for a Harlem Jazz Tour.  Neal brings to life the ambiance of that which is Harlem and Harlem strikes me as a pretty talented place.  He doesn't gloss over its history; he openly admits that, while tourism is one of the ways by which Harlem's profile can be elevated, there is also the potential of its destruction as it is slowly but surely transitioning as Manhattan's up and coming community. 



While gentrification may save the brick and mortar of a community, it can be devastating to its character as it displaces low income minority, long time residents.  In Neal's words:  "With each passing day I realize another way in which Cultural Tourism can be used as a double-edged magic wand to expose visitors to the authentic lifestyle of local residents and improve the quality of life for the overall host community – Harlem.  When balanced properly the possibilities are endless – this is what excites the good folks at the Harlem Heritage Tourism and Cultural Center"  It's all about that uneasy balance.

One of the last items on our to-do list was an NBC tour.  We originally tried to get tickets to Jimmy Fallon but, as they were sold out, this was the next best thing. Enjoyed by all, we had a chance to air our own little ditty, which gave us plenty of reasons to laugh at ourselves.  

While Times Square, Broadway and Harlem were highlights of my trip, there were other aspects of NYC that caught me off guard.  I can easily see why people want to return over and over and over again.  

First of all, the architecture is nothing short of stunning . . . everywhere. . . even in structures that have not yet made a full transition. Change is definitely in the wind.





I also discovered I have a fascination for all of the fire escapes.  Where I am accustomed to seeing one or two for each floor, as far as I can make out, there appears to be one for each unit and they really do become part of the living space.  

In every area that we visited, there were numerous churches.  While religious organizations have a role to play in the social fabric of any community, it seems to me that they are vital in many communities throughout the USA as a stopgap for those who might otherwise fall through the cracks.  Neal certainly impressed upon us their importance in Harlem.





Manhattan is not only packed with things to do, it's packed with people! Its population of more than 1.6 million is squeezed into only 59 square kilometres, making for a whopping 28,000 +/- people per square kilometer! In other words, it's a busy little place!  Before our arrival, I read that it was ill-advised to chat local New Yorkers up; that in order to live in such close proximity, a natural coping mechanism is to virtually ignore those around us and carry on about our business as if we were alone. Perhaps that's true. . . but I'm one of those people that chats everybody up. . . and I don't need a special invitation to do it!    It didn't take me long to discover that New Yorkers are just as friendly as the rest of the people I've met in the world.    When we stopped for a New York hot dog, we found ourselves being served up by an aspiring comedian.



When we were lost on the subway, people volunteered to help and those that didn't readily offered advise when asked . . . except a couple of folks who actually worked in the subway. . . we decided that they were simply unhappy in their occupation or, perhaps suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder from working underground to long.  When I needed help getting to the box office of Waitress (with permission) I latched onto the sleave of two passerbys and they happily hauled me right along with them.  And one of New York's finest was quite happy to accept a scratch behind the ear. . . the horse, not the man. 

As you might imagine, we ran out of time before accomplishing everything on our bucket list but that's not such a bad thing.  Now I understand why so many people continue to be drawn back to the Big Apple time and again. While I may be able to cross off NYC on my bucket list, it seems I need to add some specifics to it.  It's a big city and I'm told each of the five burrows has its own distinct personality; perhaps each one deserves it's own separate little mini-vacation.

As for travelling with the sisterhood, would I do it again?  In a New York minute! Perhaps we'll see you there!


Resources:   
https://www.homeaway.ca/cottage-rental/p3522881?uni_id=3510551
http://www.michalgolan.com/
http://avax.news/fact/Simply_Some_Photos_Under_an_Umbrella_Part_9.html
http://beautifulonbroadway.com/ 
http://www.harlemheritage.com/
http://www.harlemheritage.com/2011/01/23/harlem-heritage-tours-lots-can-be-done-through-cultural-tourism/



Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Secrets of the Crowsnest


In the southwest corner of Alberta,there's a corner of the world filled with intrigue, natural beauty and, for some, more than a little sadness.   During our early Spring visit, we found the often understated but unmistakable treasures this community has to offer to be a perfect fit for our girlfriend getaway. Steeped in history, wildlife and nature, there is plenty to do and see for all ages.



We were fortunate that one of our group has spent some time exploring the Crowsnest; not only was she able to offer up some great suggestions on places to stay and things to do, she connected us to one of the 'locals' who kindly filled in any blanks and offered a few suggestions of her own.  While the secret to a successful trip doesn't necessarily hinge on having someone who knows the area, it certainly doesn't hurt!


We knew we had started off on the right foot when we landed at our home-away-from-home. A Safe Haven, in Coleman, provided a comfortable, modern vacation home which we were thrilled to find spotlessly clean and well appointed and providing stunning views of what I later learned is the backside of Turtle Mountain, better known for its part in the Frank Slide disaster.  We couldn't possibly have been more comfortable in this three bedroom, two bath home which sleeps 12. Although the plan was to eat only a few meals in, we found ourselves enjoying our cozy accommodations and the supplies we packed to be perfectly contented making our own meals augmented by a large selection of coffee, tea, spices and daily condiments provided by our hosts.  Because we want them to do well, we're sharing this little secret too.  It was absolutely perfect and I highly recommend it for groups of friends or family, large or small.  You'll find the link at the bottom of the page.


The Crowsnest Pass, made up of the communities of Blairmore, Bellevue, Coleman, Hillcrest and Frank, offers a genuine mountain lifestyle.  While inhabited only by First Nations Peoples for centuries, large quantities of coal was discovered in the mid-1800s, though the first resource to be developed was actually lumber.  The Canadian Pacific Railway built a line in the late 1890s, at which time the CPR sought and received funding from the Federal Government partially in exchange for a freight subsidy on prairie farm exports.  Here's a little tidbit I learned about a well known phrase to the Prairie Provinces:  the subsidy agreement was known as "the Crow Rate' and was eventually extended to all railway lines in western Canada.  Who knew?  


All the mines in the Crowsnest were closed by the end of the 20th century as cheaper and safer open-pit mines opened. Some logging and oil and gas exploitation continues in the area, and a sulphur plant has been in operation for several years but tourism remains underdeveloped.  I'll let you in on a second secret: if you desire an experience akin to that of Canmore or Jasper, but less developed and at more moderate prices, the Crowsnest is your 'go to' place.

After a wonderful dinner in (thanks to Jane) we headed off to the Pass Pottery Club Sale in Coleman where Jane found a few pieces calling her to take them home.  She said they were gifts but, by the level of her excitement, we aren't convinced they will be gifted anytime soon. Secret Number Three:  when in the Crowsnest, don't forget to tap into the many opportunities the local art community offers.The Crowsnest Pass Public Art Gallery is also worth a stop, as you will find fine art and crafts from over 50 local and area artists at the Gallery Gift Store.

The weather was a wee bit 'iffy' so we decided to start by soaking up some of the local history and culture.  At the Crowsnest Museum, we learned all about Emporer Pick.   Emilio Picariello was an Italian bootlegger who immigrated to Canada in 1899.  This industrious fellow worked as an electrician, laborer, grocer, in a macaroni factory, and began a cigar business.  He also manufactured ice cream, where he often accepted payment in bottles, eventually achieving a monopoly on the bottle market, and earning him a reputation as the 'bottle king'.  During Prohibition, Picariello  purchased the Alberta Hotel in Blairmore as his base of operations, where he excavated a room under the hotel and dug a tunnel from it out to the road to benefit his bootlegging enterprise. Picariello was well respected by the community, an elected alderman of Blairmore and often praised for his philanthropic ways.  He distributed food to needy families and money to miners while on strike.  


Picariello eventually crossed paths with Filumena (Florence) Costanzo who became a partner in his bootlegging activities. I'm not going to ruin it for you but you should know that these two made history in a Bonnie and Clyde sort of way that is anything but boring.   This particular story is soon to receive it's very own permanent display but the museum also hosts a mining room; general store and blacksmith shop; pioneer room; military/police gallery and wildlife room, not to mention, there's also a nice little gift shop. Secret Number Four:  there's no better place to learn about the history of a community than by visiting its museum.




A wee bit off the beaten track, but definitely worth the stop, is the Hillcrest Memorial and Cemetery. The Memorial is not only a tribute to those who lost their lives in the Hillcrest Mines but in all mines throughout Canada.  On June 19, 1914, 235 men entered the mine, 189 of whom lost their lives.  Only 17 were from Canada, and 2 from Alberta.  This was not the only mine in the Crowsnest where lives were lost; there was an explosion at Hillcrest in 1926 where two men lost their lives and eight other incidents in various mines throughout the Pass accounting for the loss of an addition 227 men. This valley holds more than its share of grief. Secret Number Five: never take life for granted.

Depending on the level of activity you desire, the Crowsnest Community Trail is a 23 km. non-motorized route that connects all five communities in the Pass as well as local businesses and historical sites, such as the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre and the Bellevue Underground Mine.  If mountain biking is your passion, maps are available at the links below to Powderkeg Mountain Bike Trails and the professionally designed Bike Skills Park.




We chose to work our way along Miners Path, the historic route taken by Coleman miners on their way to work.  This relaxing and easy trail begins in Coleman and follows Nez Perce Creek to Rainbow Falls.  There is also a branch where a bridge crosses the creek and leads up to the old McGillivray Mine site which still has remnants of a bygone coal mining era.  It's well marked and well used.  Secret Number Six:  Find out where the locals like to go and you won't be disappointed if you follow them.


Sadly, we were also introduced to the Cinnamon Bear Bakery and Cafe, where we gorged on lattes, chai tea and some of the best treats I have had in some time.  It even has it's own Facebook Page! If you have an incurable sweet tooth, you will no doubt find a way to soothe it here.  If you're wondering why I say 'sadly', it's because we stopped on the way home too. . . my hips will never be the same. Secret Number Seven:  if you stop at the Cinnamon Bear, you may as well make it worth your while. . . don't stop at one treat. . . have a few!


We also spent a goodly amount of time at the Frank Slide Interpretive Center.  I visited a few years back with a large group, and didn't spend the time needed to watch a 30 minute reenactment of the disaster or the following 25 minute presentation of the history of the Crowsnest.  Both are very well done, extremely informative and time flies.  It was also nice to have the time to poke around the exhibits as well as walk a couple of the many trails offered.  Secret Number Eight:  If you decide to walk the trails, make sure you pick up a guide at the kiosk.  82 million tonnes (30 million cubic metres) is a lot of limestone to ponder when you don't know what you're looking at. 


If camping is your thing, you're in luck! There's a provincial campground a short walk from the beautiful Lundbreck Falls. While the cascades may not be huge, they are surprisingly picturesque and if you happen to be a fisherman, I'm told if you follow the water you'll find great spots for rainbow and cutthroat and perhaps even a dip in quieter waters.  We found a marmot and were totally happy with that.  Secret Number Nine:  always keep your eyes open for wildlife.


Hopefully, I've provided you with a enough tips on visiting the Crowsnest Pass, to catch your fancy but, honestly, this tenth and final secret is golden, perhaps because it's not really a secret at all. Whenever you decide to explore the Crowsnest Pass, make sure you do it in the company of someone you cherish, be it friend or family. That way, you can be guaranteed a great time.

Sources:

http://www.asafehaven.ca/

http://www.crowsnestpass.com/tourism
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crowsnest_Pass
http://www.crowsnestpass.com/tourism/what-to-do/trails
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Cinnamon-Bear/183385111681477
http://www.crowsnestheritage.ca/history/hillcrest/


Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Yoga and Other New Year Resolutions

I'm not big on making New Year's resolutions but the beginning of a New Year does give us a chance to reflect on the challenges and accomplishments over the past year and consider what we want to change about our lives.  I've always been one to preach about walking the talk and I speak often about my imaginary friend, the Bucket List, usually in reference to places I would like to travel.  But a bucket list is not about travel, it's about being.  It's about all those dreams you dreamed over the years, picking through them and choosing the ones that are important. . . really important. . . no matter how large or small.

2017 is a pivotal year for me.  I finished school and went to work shortly after my 17th birthday. Over the past 40 years my career has given me a lot to think about and be grateful for.  It has also given me a slap upside the head on more than one occasion.  Like so many others, somewhere along the way, I lost myself and began living to work instead of working to live.  I found myself turning into someone I didn't really like;  even though I loved my profession, I found myself spending FAR too much time doing the bidding of others and not being true to myself.  I remember a friend telling me that I had 'pointy edges' and, while I acknowledged this was true, I had no idea what to do about it.  And so I buried myself further into 'the work', thinking that, the more I gave, the more I would get in return.  And eventually, it did.  After serving an organization to the best of my ability for more than 25 years, I was given a big bag of money and told to leave.  Did it hurt?  You bet it did  but there is nothing like a huge hit to the Ego to make one sit up and take stalk of one's life.  



I decided to start my own business, be my own boss.  Yes, there were naysayers but, more importantly, there were those that lined up behind me in support.  I might not have been so brave had not my partner asked one simple question . . . 'What are you going to do now?'  That statement said so many things, not the least of which was that he expected me to pick myself up, dust myself off, and move on with my life.  And so I did.  I may not have had the salaried security that I was so accustomed to but I have so much more: the freedom to choose who I worked for and I can honestly say, I have never had to sacrifice my professional convictions since I became my own boss. I can also honestly say that I have had fabulous clients! I have the freedom to set my own hours which paid off in spades when I needed to turn my attention to family during those difficult but oh-so-rewarding years of seeing my aging parents through to the end.  I have often said I love my boss and that is a definite truism.  Having my own business returned my confidence and re-established my own self-worth. And now, it is giving me the chance to slowly wind the business down, and time to adjust to building a life aside from work.  Today, I have a single client and, when our journey together is done, so am I. It's time to start a new chapter.



And the first thing on it is to re-evaluate that bucket. . . 43 items on The List and still growing!  #1 is choosing a word for the year.  I had not heard of this until a friend mentioned it on Facebook. Her word for 2017 is 'relevant'. I'm still toying with my word but I think it's going to be 'challenge'. I think I've been a bit complacent about life and it's time to step out of my comfort zone and challenge myself a little more.

#2 on The List is to start a 'joy jar'.  It goes by many names. . . gratitude jar, happiness jar. . . I'm sure you get  my drift. The idea is to put a little something down on paper to remind yourself of something that happened that made you smile, created joy.  At the end of your year, revisit the jar and remind yourself of these joyful events.  You decide how often you want to put something in the jar; if you are a little OCD, you will have a mental calendar prepared before you even get your jar decorated.  If you're a bit of a pessimist at heart, or perhaps a procrastinator, you might want to set some guidelines for yourself such as adding something every week of the year.  Surely, everyone has something to smile about at least once a week, right? Remember!  Glass half-full!


The third thing on The List is going on a girl trip.  I used to do this a lot but it seems to have dwindled down to nothingness.  I must be started on the right foot because I have TWO trips currently in the works. . .and one is even booked. . .EEK!   baby steps in terms of challenging, perhaps but it's on The List!  Oh, and bout that yoga, I've just started a 31-day Free On-Line Yoga Challenge (#43, my bucket list is not in order of priority)  If you're interested in following suit, here's the link:
http://yogawithadriene.com/revolution-day-1/

Don't worry, I've got some grandiose plans too, like participating in a Holi Festival (maybe I'll even host one), going on an African Safari, building a straw bale 'something' (even if it's a chicken coop!).  I've even got some personal goals on The List that will be a personal challenge, but the biggest, most important one of all on The List is #25, growing old with the one I love.  There's aspects about #25 that I can control but there are just as many that I can't and to a control freak like me, perhaps that's the most challenging one of all.  Wish me well.





Monday, 28 November 2016

Hualtulco, Mexico and the Dream of Dreams

We have been to the Mayan Riviera on several occasions and are now exploring the west (Pacific) side of Mexico.  What can we say, except to say we love it.  Not only is there plenty of opportunity for tourism, there is plenty of opportunity for a tourist to rub shoulders with the locals, if that's what you like to do. . . and that's exactly what we like to do! We found the Mayan to be heavily developed, and one really has to look for ‘authentic' Mexico.  While I would never go so far as to say the local population is unfriendly, we are of the opinion that tourism is a means to an end (survival) but that the locals don’t really like us in their country.  Not so Huatulco.  The atmosphere is laid back, ‘authentic’ and the local people are some of the friendliest we have encountered anywhere in our travels.  While being apologetic for their poor English, we found most had a very good verbal command of the English language, and those that didn’t get “A” for effort.  We have often referred to Mexico as the ‘playground of Americans’, which has been our experience in the Mayan.  Much to our surprise, almost all the tourists we met, off or on the resort, were from Western Canada

Huatulco is a series of 9 bays in the far southwest corner of Mexico, in the state of Oaxaca. In the late 1970’s, the Mexican tourism agency, Fonatur, identified this area for major development; in fact, the original master plan envisioned another Cancun.  For whatever reason, Cancun and the Mayan took off, while Huatulco slowly percolated – a blessing in disguise, as the plan has since been amended to protect several of the bays from development. Although the impact of tourism has been reduced, the locals are concerned future development will ultimately destroy the relaxed feel of the community. Those in the tourism industry understand the draw to the area is its lack of sophistication and density.  There is significant ongoing private development in the area and a new 400-suite Secrets is set to open in 2010/11.

While there are a few planned tours, we didn’t partake in any of them.  We have been told the tour of the bays is a must.  We also met someone who did a combination tour of rafting, plantation tour and mud bath.  They found it to be very educational and completely entertaining.

As this particular area of Mexico is virtually crime free, we took a walk around ‘old Huatulco’ located in the resort area of Tangolunda Bay.  When Fonatur identified Huatulco for tourism, the government purchased much of the ocean front, from the locals, including this particular area.  There are few small hotels, markets and shops.  In other words, everything you need is within walking distance of the resort.
LaCrucecita

The government constructed  LaCrucecita to serve as a support community for the area.  Although planned with tourism in mind, it has a more genuine Mexican atmosphere. A $3 cab fare lands you near the zócalo or plaza, the focal point of the community enjoyed by residents and tourists alike. A number of hotels and restaurants are located on or near the zócalo. 

Parroquia de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe
The town church, called Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, is located in front of the park. In the cupola of the church is painted a 20 meter tall image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which is the largest in the world.  We were unable to enter the church, which is usually open to the public, as the church was holding an outdoor service.  We did, however, have a visit with some of the local children, hung out in the park for a bit, and had a pizza at the famous LaCrema Restaurant, known for its world class wood-fired oven baked pizza.
  
LeCrema
We also hired one of the local guides off the beach, to take us fishing and sightseeing.  We were picked up at the resort at 7 a.m., returning around 5 p.m., for a total of $250 US.  I have read these guides are not insured and I’m pretty sure they aren’t.  There is also some ‘hidden costs’ involved, such as the cab fare back to the resort ($3) and lunch ($50) and shopping if you like.  

Dolphins by the Hundreds
We fished for about 4 hours, during which time we saw plenty of dolphin and sea turtles.  We didn’t catch anything and except for the sea life (the dolphins were an absolute THRILL) the fishing for me, was much akin to watching paint dry.  That may have had something to do with the Dramamine we took for fear of being seasick (we weren’t) but my better half is a fisherman and I’m not; and he enjoyed it.  We then went to lunch at one of the Bays frequented by locals and tourists alike; snorkeled for about an hour; toured a few of the bays and returned to Santa Cruz, the local marina where a few cruise ships dock.

Our guide, Jesus and Rudy

One has to remember, these guides are not professional.  Rudy’s English was very good, while Jesus’ speaks Spanish only.  Both were very friendly and understood what tourists wanted to see.  That being said, the experience could easily be enhanced.  As the spokesperson, Rudy’s sales skills are pretty sharp.  He needs an identifier or ‘brand’ so he is recognizable as there is a lot of ‘talk’ on Trip Advisor, in particular.  Second, he needs to become a little bit more aware of safety while boating.  I would suggest a bit of an orientation to boating, offering life jackets when you step on board and leaving the choice to the guest as to whether or not they are worn.  Learning/sharing knowledge about the sea life and local area would be a great asset.   We like to learn about how the area was founded, what the expectation of growth is for development; how that will impact the community, how people make their living, etc.  It might take a bit of time to gather the details but Rudy  is very personable and certainly capable.  I would have liked to have known what kind of turtles and dolphins we were seeing or even that there are different species in the area; popular bird life, etc. 

I was a little un-nerved that we were literally dumped over the side of the boat to go snorkeling (once I got in I was fine).  I was expecting one of them to get in with us and have read that other guides do so.  One of Rudy’s strengths was that he was quick to remind us how to respect their environment, staying away from the reefs, etc.  While we came with money, we have been on several tours where some did not; it would be helpful to advise his customers to bring cash to purchase their lunch, pay their cab fare back to the resort, and purchase local crafts.  This will come in time as Rudy and Jesus’ perfect their tourism skills.  That being said, we would not hesitate to do it again and we wouldn’t hesitate to do it with them.

For us, the scenery was unusual and sparse but it has a way of growing on you.  We have become very accustomed to lush green tropics but this area, during high season, is not lush and except the resort areas, it’s not even green.  This is because the area is semi-arid and the only thing green this time of year are the cactus.   The rainy season (late May to September) brings all the trees into full leaf and I’m told, in October, it’s breath-taking.  The coast line is rocky and craggy, backed by the Sierra Madre Mountains; the trees are mottled greys and the sea a deep blue. The longer we were there the more we liked it.
Sierra Madre Mountains along the Pacific Coast
      
Although we rarely stay at all-inclusive resorts anymore, this time we chose Dreams Hualtulco.  We didn’t take photos of the facility itself; these are all available (and, incidentally, accurate) on the web at: http://www.huatulco-dreaming.comOur past all-inclusive experiences have resulted in some very high-end resorts, however, this was our first ‘Dreams’ experience.  I’m only guessing but I suspect Dreams Huatulco is at the bottom of the Dreams resorts chain.  This was an existing Gala Hotel taken over by Dreams a few years ago.  While the resort classes itself as a 5*, the accommodations, in my mind, is more akin to a 3+*.  The rooms are nice, but there is only a shower (we have been spoiled by double Jacuzzis); the ceilings are low; the buffet is adequate but the choices are limited.  

It was here I discovered that I had become a bit of a snob when it came to accommodations and sadly, my initial impression was one of disappointment.  That said, the place really grew on us.  The entire facility is extremely clean; staff and guests alike are extremely friendly; while choices were somewhat limited at the buffet (I’m a very picky eater) the food was excellent; the beach is great with lots of palapas; there are 6 pools; and, because we were traveling during shoulder season, the resort was nowhere near capacity.  At this time of year, we estimated the resort to be running at about 25% occupancy during the week, and about 60% from Thursday to Sunday as it seems to be a very popular destination for Mexican families.  We also witnessed several weddings and a Mexican christening, with the christening being the largest gathering.

The resort itself is very compact, with little variance in elevation from street to waterfront.  I would consider it an excellent choice for anyone with a physical handicap as there is also considerable hardscaping.  You can get everywhere via a couple of elevators, with the exception of the beach.  Suffice it to say, even my partner never got lost and he gets lost everywhere!

Tangolunda Bay sand is course and golden and the waves are rowdy and unruly.  If you don't get rolled once or twice, I'm guessing you didn't go in.  The beach extends considerably west and south, with about 5 other resorts on the Bay, with Las Brisas Resort on the point.  I wouldn’t consider it a particularly good beach for young children as the tide is quite erratic with big waves (there is surfing a few miles up the coast); and the drop-off is fast and deep.  It was also extremely warm and my better half is convinced there is a higher salt content as he had no problem staying afloat – a real novelty for him.  In other words, we LOVED it!  There are 6 pools at the resort, including a well-used kid’s pool and an adult only.  This is the first resort we have been to where pool hours was unrestricted; people would be swimming laps at 6:00 a.m. and it was common place to find a few in the pool at 9 and 10 p.m.  We tend to be ‘ocean going’ folk, so we never tipped so much as a toe into any of them but they all looked lovely and I understand they are also heated (that means something to some people; coming from Alberta, we were just happy it wasn’t frozen). 


The resort seems to be frequented by older couples (40+) and families with young children.  The kid’s pool and day camp appeared to be very popular and although we didn’t partake in any of the activities, the main pool seemed very participative.  Evening entertainment was minimal.  To my knowledge, there was no professional talent on the resort at any time, though one evening there was a solo act in the lobby bar which seemed popular with a few 60+ couples.

We were looking solely for an opportunity to decompress and relax from a very hectic and busy life and, for one entire week, that’s precisely what we did.  There isn’t enough activity on site, in my mind, to keep one entertained for two weeks and teenagers and 20 somethings would be quickly bored.
                                                            
On-line photos of the rooms are precisely what you get.  They are modern, of decent size, and very clean.  There is a large shower and double sinks; the closet space is a bit tight; there is a typical sized safe and well stocked mini fridge.  We opted for a tropical view room because we could get one with a two-man Jacuzzi on the deck and I’m a Jacuzzi-holic.  We only used it once because the deck is really a bit tight for the Jacuzzi, two chairs and a table, and there is absolutely NO privacy.  I have read reviews the decks are often too hot to enjoy; fortunately our room faced east and looked into a treed crag.  The sun never made it over the hill until around 7:30 a.m.; very comfortable for morning coffee, late afternoons and evenings, but I’m guessing east facing is key to our success.  We did not opt for the ‘preferred club’ which offers a special beach area and some other perks, including its own private lounge and upgraded afternoon hot and cold snacks.  At this time of year, this was the right choice for us, though at high season, the preferred beach seating may have been a good thing to have.  Comments around the resort suggested that most folks were very happy with the accommodation and I understand it is currently the best in the area.

As I stated previously, the buffet selection is limited.  That said, the food was, perhaps, the best we have ever experienced in an all-inclusive.  We had a roast beef dinner one night that tasted ‘home cooked’ and you can’t get much better than that.  We would have liked to have seen a fresh grill area and fresh pasta bar (possibly there is one during the high season) but we certainly didn't have problems finding enough to eat.  Breakfast and lunch was always very good.  Suffice it to say, we found the buffet tasty enough that we only ate at an a la carte once, being the Porto Fino, which we also found very good.  Some people complained that it took too long but it’s supposed to – it’s fine dining – besides, where else did they have to be?  We also didn’t take advantage of room service, but heard it was fast, accurate and tasty as well. 

What I liked best was the international drinks.  I’m a fussy drinker, and a fussy eater so being able to get premium alcohol is a big deal for me.  My partner found bourbon he liked and the cerveza to be tasty.  I found the wine to be pretty decent and sucked back more than my share of Irish cream.  I also discovered a new drink:  MUDSLIDE. . . hmmm hmmmm good. . . . .   

Okay – we admit it – we were more than just VERY VERY lazy, we were slugs!   Just when I think we have hit the epitome of laziness, we are able to redefine the term ‘sloth’!   We began our days early (kinda sorta) but rarely made it for breakfast before 9:30 a.m., after which we would spend the rest of the day at the beach.  The one activity that we never did see though, was beach volleyball.  We talked to another couple who has been to the area before and they commented it is just not popular in Huatulco for some reason.  The most active ‘on resort’ activity I did a lot of, besides floating around that big ol’ ocean, was hobie catting.  You need to have a lesson and then you can take it out as often as you like. 

We heard via other guests the evening shows were clearly amateur productions taken on by the activities staff, who worked very hard all day too.  Parents told us the kids club and pool area were popular.  There was little to no entertainment in the bars.  One night there was a solo singer/piano player; we didn’t enjoy it but there were several older couples (a relative term, I know. . . ) dancing so somebody did.  There was a nightly evening movie and there was always a few to several people enjoying the outdoor theatre presentation.

We were very impressed with the majority of the staff.  Housekeeping was efficient, timely and most of those we talked to were pretty fluent in English, which we have not experienced at other resorts.  With the exception of the beach waitress (Ana Guadalupe) we didn’t find the bar staff particularly friendly or efficient, but they weren’t the worst we have ever experienced either.  Restaurant and front desk staff were friendly and helpful.  Check in and check-out was a breeze.  We really had nothing to complain about.


Every all-inclusive resort has strengths and weaknesses, and Dreams Huatulco is no different.  We found the food to be some of the best we have had, even though the selection is limited and a fresh grill at evening meals would really go a long way. The property, while somewhat older, is well maintained and extremely clean.  The rooms are nice, equipped with all the amenities we needed, and the beds very comfortable (which can't be said for much of Mexico which seems to prefer VERY hard mattresses).  While I would class the facility itself as a 3.5*, the management and staff are clearly 5*.   Everything related to ‘people skills’ Dreams definitely met or exceeded our expectations and that's exactly where we like it.  I went from initial disappointment in the facility, to falling in love with Huatulco as a community and being very comfortable at the resort.  Dreams is obviously committed to service delivery and this has to be recognized and commended.  We can’t say enough about the friendliness, cleanliness and level of safety we found in Huatulco, on and off the resort.  We have never returned to the same resort twice, preferring to have a new experience, even if it’s just through a change of venue.  Dreams Huatulco just might have tipped that scale in favor of a return visit.

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