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:

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.

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.
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.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Jamaica Mon and Sandals Resorts

Sandals Royal Carribean Private Island
It's been awhile since we went to Jamaica but like pretty much everywhere we have every travelled, we absolutely loved it.  We read and heard much about Jamaica and their people and had come to the conclusion we would either love it or hate it.  We are definitely part of the former group but there are a few things one should be prepared for on their first experience.

Jamaica has a very active drug culture; and the pedlars can be aggressive.  The drug culture seems to be flourishing but no more so than in most Caribbean countries where unemployment is high. But contrary to other experiences we have had, Jamaica seems to be taking somewhat of a different approach to addressing it:  rather than ignoring or hiding the issue, it attempts to educate its visitors and provide very sound advice – a position we applaud. 

Generally, we found the Jamaican people to be warm, friendly and easygoing.  We also found them to be assertive but always respectful, demanding respect in return.   In our travels, we have often witnessed tourists being rude and condescending to the locals and resort staff and, naturally, the staff become cautious and perhaps a little less willing to shoot the breeze.  We did not have this experience anywhere in Jamaica.   We plied them with questions about their country and their culture and they willingly shared their knowledge.  But, most of all, when they say “no problem, mon”, they actually mean it!

housing is often humble
Unemployment is very high but Jamaicans seem to truly understand the concept of taking care of their own.  Homes are often generational.  The “haves” share with the “have nots” and only seniors who are not being properly cared for end up in what are called “poor homes”.  Churches of every denomination are everywhere (usually right next to a bar).  We found facilities throughout Jamaica to be clean, even when humble.  Drinking water is safe and we heard no incidents of the typical traveller’s woes aka Montezuma's Revenge. 

We enjoy traveling to areas which challenge our foreign language skills and were a little disappointed that we would not be learning aspects of a foreign language.  Our fears were unfounded; while the official language may be English, the language of choice is (Jamaican) Patois. And, try as we might, we came home with very little of its vocabulary.

One should be aware, however, that Jamaica is also very intolerant of homosexuality.  While the majority of locals we met had spouses and children, none that we asked were married.  50% of all weddings in Jamaica are apparently for tourists. 

YS Falls
Due to the high crime rate, while we were advised not to wonder off resort outside of a tour, the country is beautiful and it's well worth your time to seek out a few tours and get off the resort.  We did the Chukka Canopy, and the Black River Safari and YS Falls Tours.  We had wonderful guides and drivers who did their best to entertain and educate.  We LOVED the canopy tour in the hills but discovered a second tour at YS Falls. It looked incredible as the zipline follows the falls but there's always a trade-off and it was not quite as expansive. There is also a sunset canopy tour which might be fun.   We were somewhat disappointed in the Black River Safari, though we did see a number of crocodiles and egrets.   For us, the opportunity to see some of the country during the 2-hour drive made up for it. 
Our zipline guides:
guaranteed to keep you safe and keep you laughing

In other Caribbean countries we have witnessed the poor condition of livestock. We even declined horseback riding when one individual got on a horse which literally folded to its knees. They are often malnourished, diseased, unhappy animals.  In Jamaica, we were impressed with health of the livestock and were told all livestock and produce is grown naturally (organically).  A couple of the locals told us this is the reason why Jamaicans are so healthy.

Sandals Resorts:

Add caption

We have been to some very nice exclusive resorts, however, there are a few things at Sandals Resorts we have yet experienced at others.  In each of the rooms there is a book about the history and culture of Jamaica as well as one about the history of the Sandals chain – both well worth the read.

At Sandals we found not only beer, pop and water in our bar fridge, but an assortment of fruit juices; a selection of hard liquors, white and red wine and champagne.    We also enjoyed turn-down service. We didn’t experience butler service; I’m not sure we would enjoy this but some people really soaked up the attention.

The staff are well trained professionals and all seemed happy, suggesting a very healthy corporate culture -- not something we have found at all resorts.  They showed no fear of management and were committed to the philosophy that good work would be rewarded by better positions.  There seemed to be a certain amount of longevity in the staff.  Sandals supports a medical plan for staff and family and any staff we talked to was not only pleased to be working for Sandals but VERY proud.  We were given the solid impression Sandals cares about and for its employees.

We thought it was a very nice touch that a number of the staff, including the general manager, gave us a bit of a send-off, including a drink and snack “for the road” as we left for the airport. 

Sandals also offers the opportunity to visit its other resorts in the area and Montego Bay actually has three to choose from: Sandals Inn; Sandals Montego Bay (SMB) and Sandals Royal Carribean (SRC). About 1 1/2 hours away is Sandals Whitehouse.

Sandals Inn:  Very small and quaint.  There is no beach with the property but there is a small public beach across the street.  We met people who were very disappointed and left the Inn every morning, spending all their time at either SRC and SMB.  We also met those who absolutely loved it as it was small, intimate and quiet but just one block off the “Hip Strip” where there is lots of action.

Sandals Montego Bay (SMB):  Immediately adjacent the Sangster International Airport (you will see it next to the runway when you fly in), the plane traffic is VERY loud.  The beach, though somewhat better than SRC, is limited.  We met many people who stayed there to party but came to SRC to eat.  We ate at Tokyo Joes and really enjoyed it.  We were also told the Italian Restaurant was very good.

Sandals Whitehouse:  Located approximately 1 ½ hours from the Sangster Airport, it looked stunning.  The beach was lovely, the lobby and pools very nice and the accommodation appeared well designed.  The few people we talked to indicated accommodations and food were very good.  Not everybody likes the long drive but we would consider it in a future return visit to Jamaica.  These photos do NOT do the facility justice.

We were told Whitehouse also has a higher caliber of entertainment than other Sandals resorts. This may have to do with its remote, rural location.  There was to be an art auction after our visit which we thought was unique.  The little bit of art we saw in Jamaica was of poor quality but the examples for the auction were very well done.

Sandals Royal Caribbean (SRC) Sandals RC is about 35 years old.  This resort is compact, well designed and never feels crowded.  It would be impossible to over-praise the management and staff at SRC.   Sandals seems to have a solidly established reputation as a very good employment opportunity.  The staff are happy and appear to work very well with management.  We formed bonds with a few which left us feeling sad to say goodbye to them.  Knowing we were at a resort that takes care of its people gives us great comfort and makes it worth considering a visit back, just to see them again.We found all of the public areas well maintained.  

The combination of the friendliness of the staff and design, from the pool areas to the pub, encourages meeting and making new friends.  For a couple traveling alone, it was a great opportunity to meet a variety of people. Located 10 minutes from the Sangster airport makes for easy access, however, it is also located within a flightpath.  Some found it annoying while others thought it was no big deal.  We were impressed to see a great number of management staff walking through, stopping to pick up an empty glass or plate, saying hello to visitors and staff alike.  It made for a very comfortable atmosphere – again, a sign of healthy corporate culture.

We found the age of the resort creeping in which, unfortunately, can not be modified without extensive renovation.  Halls and walkways are very narrow and, if you happen to meet a housekeeping or beverage cart, it is a tight squeeze by.  This is a minor comment, as we found buildings, facilities and grounds to be clean and very well maintained.

From our research before the trip, we were aware the beach is very small.  Photos in promotional material is somewhat deceptive.  If the beach is important to you, this may not be a choice location.  It points to the need to DO YOUR HOMEWORK before you book the trip.  If you like to snorkel, you need to go by boat to the reef, which also cushions SRC from any wave action.   The sea is so calm, on most mornings it is like glass.  We are told this is typical of the entire island.

While the private island is capitalized upon in the promotional material, it is not particularly user friendly.  Transportation runs on the hour; you are not allowed to take kayaks from the resort; and there was no food available when we visited.  A few snacks and better connections to the main land (a 2-minute boat ride) would go a long way to enhancing its use. 

 “Clothing optional” is pretty popular in Jamaica and this area happens to be located on what we consider the best swimming area of the resort.  It's a well marked area on one side of the private island and, if the sight of a naked body (in a variety of shapes and sizes) offends you, it's easily avoided.  We heard many comments from other guests who apparently needed to have a “look-see” to have something to guffaw about.  If nudity is your thing, you would be better served at a resort that caters specifically to this alternative and in Jamaica, that won't be problematic; there are some very high end resorts that make this options very comfortable.

If you are looking for a bit of evening fun, make sure you hang out in Cricketers Pub for a bit, where the music is loud and the staff are charming. While we met lots of people in the 20’s and 30’s, we see this resort more appropriate for couples looking for somewhere willing to provide long lingering dinners, lazy days beside the pool, and early nights.  It does not cater to partiers.  The SMB appears to cater to a younger crowd.  SRC is relatively wheelchair friendly and would certainly be a good choice for anyone with limited mobility.

There is a huge variety of room options.  We try to stay away from ground floor rooms but, in the Kensington Building at least, ground floor would have been very nice.  Suites 116, 216 and 316 are corner suites and much larger.   We were in a Royal Honeymoon Luxury Beachfront Concierge Room and were happy. We found the balcony small but adequate in comparison to other experiences.  We (again) recommend you do your homework about the type of room you request.  While some of the rooms are right on the beach, they are also in very high traffic areas with constant activity.  If you like your privacy, most of the beachfront rooms (ground level) would not be appropriate, however, we met some who loved all the action.  We can’t comment on the river suite rooms except to say they are located in a very central and busy area of the resort.

Most of us can manage quite comfortably without perfect sunsets, a poorly equipped gym, a few less activities.   But let’s face it – most of us expect to eat very well.  The one consistent complaint we heard was the quality of the food and the limited options.  During the evening, all dining facilities are a la carte.  The menus do not vary from day to day.  While many loved the hot spicy food and atmosphere of the Thai Restaurant, anyone who doesn't enjoy seafood, (me! me) I discovered I was limited to a single dish from the entire menu, including appetizers and main courses.  There were times when the already limited choice was no longer available because they had run out.  To get the variety, you must use the two other Sandals Resorts at Montego BayWe liked having premium alcohols available and took full advantage of it but here's a little tip:  The tequila is nasty. . . all over the island!  Jamaica is “rum country”.  

On these holidays, we are often VERY lazy (think sloth) and this was no exception.  We began our days early and ended them early, spending 90% of our time in a lounge chair by the pool. If not in our lounger we were off-resort.   In the event you wish to be active, you certainly can be.  There is music, games and other activities around the main pool; beach volleyball; kayaking; snorkeling; windsurfing; scuba diving; a fully equipped gym; and spa facilities.  You don’t have to be a beach potato . . . we just wanted to be.  The entertainment was mediocre, which has been our experience at other all-inclusives.

Sandals Resorts obviously does many things right and has some very strong supporters, as can be witnessed on the “Walls of Fame” in some of the resorts.  Visitors make the Wall upon their 5th return visit; one couple celebrated a 100th visit – that’s 3 visits a year for 33 years!  There are special privileges for “signature” guests” which also sounded like lots of fun.  While we didn’t find many first-timers terribly excited about SRC, we found return visitors to be absolutely committed to SRC and/or Sandals Chain.

Would recommend SRC? The staff would be our only reason for returning to SRC.   Would we go back to a Sandals?  Maybe but we would have to carefully research before we spent two weeks at one again.  We loved the look of the Whitehouse beach and facilities and may research that resort as well as Negril and Dunn’s River.   Sandals has some stiff competition and we still need to be convinced the extra cost equates to extra value. 

Would we go back to JamaicaAbsolutely Mon!


Monday, 25 July 2016

Saving the Best for Last - Adventures in New South Wales.

NSW Route
An entirely new meaning to
There is no denying I fell in love with Australia, from the moment we landed in Mount Barker until our last evening in Sydney.  Everywhere we went, from South Australia, down the Great Ocean Road to Melbourne, from one end of Tasmania to the other, we continued to find ourselves surrounded by breathtaking scenery and wonderfully warm people who had no trouble at all bandying about a love for all things creative, swaddled in off-the-wall humour.  It was like coming home! Every day, we would wake up convinced we weren't going to see anything more spectacular . . . and yet we did. So it was only fitting that NSW was the crowning glory.  We were unprepared for the combination of jewel-tone seas edged in asubtropical rainforest which hosts a multi-layered canopy of up to 60 species of trees and shrubs.

If this description appeals to you, Tamborine Mountain National Park (just north of NSW, in Queensland) will easily entice you out of your car and into a world of eucalyptus and cycad trees stretched along an abundance of easy walks and magnificent views.  Don't miss the Mount Tamborine Skywalk where, if you are lucky, you might even find yourself face to face with the elusive platypus.

Cape Byron Lighthouse
The acclaimed Byron Bay, a beachside town located in the north eastern corner of the state, is often referred to as a paradise with the power to cast a spell over everyone who goes there.  Architects, designers, craftworkers and software engineers have set up shop in this elite coastal village, earning  Byron a reputation as the 'style capital' of the North Coast.  I confess, we didn't spend enough time in Byron to know whether this was true but we did stop long enough to take a stroll around Cape Byron Lighthouse.  Definitely worth the time, be forewarned, it is a tourism mecca; go early in the morning to beat the crowds, or be prepared to walk quite a distance from parking and share the view with thousands.  

It wasn't remotely possible for me to visit NSW without checking out some of my ancestral homes which explains how we got to Maclean.  Dubbed 'the Scottish Town in Australia', here you will discover a nod to its history in the Gaelic found on many of the Town's street signs and tartan-clad streetlamp posts.  While this is  delightful, we were charmed the most by the small town warmth of its residents.  As we had made a rule about driving at night, and our accommodations was outside of the town proper, we were unsure how we would find our evening meal.  Have no fear:  one call to the local Returned and Enlisted Services League (RSL) and a van arrived, not only to deliver us to the club but also to take us home whenever it pleased us.  When we offered to pay for our fare, we were first met with surprise, after which we were solemnly advised that this town not only takes care of its own, but of its visitors as well.   Yet again, we found our offer of monetary compensation rejected. 

Clarence River
In the morning, we chose to cross the mighty Clarence by ferry so that we could enjoy a scenic drive through the countryside.  The largest river in NSW, aside from the Murray, it is the largest river in mainland Australia south of the Tropic of Capricorn.  Extreme rainfalls in this area often result in major floods, temporarily raising the flow of the Clarence to levels equivalent to some of the largest rivers in the world.  The Clarence supports a large prawn trawling and fishing industry and the area is well known for its cattle and sugar cane production.  It was here that my great grandmother, Catherine Davis Marles was raised; indeed not only were we able to find her parents and grandparents in the Methodist section of the Maclean Cemetery, it is the location of a large extended family reunion which I'm told draws upwards of 1,000 people.  

Fruit Bats
And Davis' aren't the only ones congregating in the area.  A colony of unwanted fruit bats, also referred to as flying foxes, have set up house in the vicinity of the school, next to the cemetery.  as stated in the Daily Examiner "they party all night, leave a huge mess and destroy where they live--anyone who lives near Maclean's flying fox population knows they are the neighbours from hell".  

Our next stop was Coff's Harbour. While one might consider us to be a wee bit biased (my great grandparents were community founders; you can learn more about it here I have to say, we were duly impressed.  In fact, we are still wondering whatever possessed my great grandparents to pull up stakes and move to the Canadian prairies.  As, that's a question we will never have an answer to, let's get back on track.  Coff's is unique in the fact that nowhere else in Australia doe the sub-alpine, sub-tropical and sub-marine ecosystems co-exist in one place.    Nearby Dorrigo National Park is World Heritage listed and Coff's stunning beaches introduce one to myriad marine opportunities.  Originally inhabited by the Gumbaynggirr Aboriginals, the area's fertile soils, temperate climate, many rivers and rich marine life provides a wealth of resources including timber, gold and tin mining, ship building, banana plantations and dairy farms.  

Postcard of Wonderful Beaches in the Vicinity of Coff's Harbour

We stayed at the Observatory Apartment Hotel and, while once again, one might consider us influenced by the fact that this establishment is owned, in part, by distance relatives some four generations removed, I would ask  that you check out the website, look at the photos and be assured that what you see is exactly what you get.  What makes this Observatory so wonderful is not only the spectacular views of the jetty, marina and foreshore; it is ideally located within easy walking distance of a number of restaurants and shops.  If we still haven't won you over, just wait until you meet managers Daniel and Emily; not only are they warm and inviting, they are only too willing to pass along a few tips of what one should see, not only in Coff's but in the general region. There is a reason why the Observatory is rated #1 hotel in Coff's by Trivago and Admittedly, I had a little difficulty finding it on TripAdvisor so I've included the link to their website below but, if you're looking, check under 'Coffs Harbour Specialty Lodging'.  And don't take our word for it; check it out for yourself, the sooner the better!
Bacon & Poached Eggs
Did I happen to mention that we like to dawdle? Sad as it sounds, we spent our next night a paltry 40 minutes inland from Coff's.  If it gives you any consolation, we took the scenic route north to Woolgoolga, then headed west, through Coramba and Nana Glen.  Ideally, we should have swung through Glen Innis and Armadale and Waterfall Way but, alas, we opted to spend time in Bellingen, a quaint little community of about 3,000 residents at the midway point between Brisbane and Sydney. Here, there are lots of interesting shops to poke through, with our favourite being the Old Butter Factory.

Funny story. . . by this time we are on the last leg of our one month tour of Australia and still we had not discovered how to order breakfast. By now we were well versed in ordering Long Black and Flat White coffees, undoubtedly some of the best coffee we have had in our travels.  We are still trying to comprehend just how big a pig grows in Australia; from the size of the bacon strips, they have to be whoppers but you know what they say: everything is bigger in Australia.  It was the eggs that were throwing us off.  Our requests for 'over easy' or 'sunny side up' were not exactly ignored but, when our breakfast arrived, it would not be what one might have expected.  It was here, in Bellingen, a mere few days before leaving the continent for home, that we discovered that eggs come in 'soft', 'medium' or 'hard'. . . and they are ALL poached!  I admit, we had quite a chuckle over the perfectly poached eggs we received that morning for breakfast as they were faintly reminiscent of a part of the male anatomy that men are extremely protective of. . . if get my drift.

Itsy Bitsy Spider Went Up the Water Spout

See how high that door knob is!
Our next stop was at the entrance to Lake Macquarie. The area is known for its coal mining, fishing, boating and tourism, not to mention its fine sandy beaches. I'm not exactly sure what was going on there but we were happy to find accommodation of any sort that night, and found ourselves in a small roadside motel where, once again, the management was very friendly and helpful.  It was here that we saw our biggest spider and, for all the hype about the many critters that can kill you and the size of the bugs, it was more than a bit anticlimactic.   In fact, he was so docile, I was sure he was dead but the manager assured me he was simply lying in wait for his next victim.  What I think impressed us more was the height of the door knobs.  This was not the first time we found door knobs (interior and exterior) extraordinarily high, particularly in older buildings.  We have not yet fathomed exactly why this is. High exterior doorknobs might prevent young children from inadvertently leaving the room and, since it was only steps from the water, perhaps it's a safety feature.  But why would there be the same desire to keep them out of the bathroom?  Such a quandary we never figured it out.  In the event you have the answer, please share!
Swansea War Memorial

A word about Australia's various clubs. It would seem that most clubs are open to the general public for a meal. In Lorne, it was suggested that there was an excellent chef at the local lawn bowling club. We weren't disappointed. In Maclean, it was a van from the local RSL  that delivered us to the door of its restaurant.  I would suggest they are similar to Canadian Legions but significantly more popular.  The two we were in were very large and appeared to cover everything including fine dining, family dining, pub style and gambling. Both had a considerable area for display of its local war history and respect for its veterans; in fact, at the 2nd one, at 6pm sharp, we were asked to stand for a minute of silence.  The daughter of a veteran myself, it warmed my heart.

Blue Mountains
The next stop was the Great Western Road, on our way to Katoomba, in the midst (or should i say mist) of the Blue Mountains.  Sadly, it wasn't a particularly nice day. The Blue Mountains are a spur off the Great Dividing Range, so named due to the blue haze that hovers above them.  It is commonly believed that the haze is created by the atmosphere dispersing droplets of Eucalypt oil from the four species of Eucalyptus represented.  The oil combines with dust particles and water vapour. Mount Boyce, a few kilometers north of Blackheath, and standing 1,093m (3,586') high, is one of the highest peaks.  The entire area is a labyrinth of hiking trails but not all of the area's hikers are fully prepared.  Not only do they get lost by walking off the beaten track; the importance of good boots and a jacket cannot be over stressed as the weather can change extremely fast.  

City viewshed from under the bridge
Back down we went, to our final stop, in Sydney. Here we met with a distance cousin who proved extremely helpful in providing suggestions for our trip.  A New South Wales native, no one will find a better champion of her community, particularly when it comes to Sydney.  Anne is passionate about her love of all things Sydney including her favourite 'footy' team, the Sydney Swans. Admittedly, we are not 'City' people; rather, we are happy to plod along the country trails enjoying the scenery and wildlife and relish the small communities. Anne couldn't quite believe we were going to be in one of the most beautiful cities in the world and not stop and see any of it. She was having none of it; instead, she popped us in the car and we set out on her 15 minute tour.  Honestly, I can't imagine a better guide.  We visited the Sydney Harbour, where we not only saw spectacular views including the bridge and opera house, we received a run-down on every kind of boat to be seen from private luxury yachts to the various ferries and charters.  Of one thing we have no doubt:  not only is Anne fiercely loyal to her City, she is very well versed in it and we loved it!

And just in case we weren't completely bedazzled by her City (we were), as the final piece de resistance, she invited us to tag along on a family birthday dinner. While we gorged on wine and pizza (one of the best meals we had on our month-long vacation) we stoically accepted the jibes given all in fun and hopefully gave a few back of our own.  Sadly, we were at a disadvantage, not being fully conversant in Australian slang. . . but one thing we do know. . . if you are ever called a bogan, it's likely not a compliment!

Opera House 
And there ended our journey,  the next morning, bright and early, we squeezed into the economy class of Air New Zealand (which is really not as bad as people make it out to be.  Admittedly, the trip to Australia seemed easier than coming home.  It could have been due to the excitement of seeing my niece or an entirely new continent even though it was 27 hours door-to-door.  My personal philosophy is that the flight to Australia from North America works with our circadian rhythms while the return works in opposition.  It's a little easier to convince the body to sleep when you get on a plane late afternoon, you are fed dinner, watch a couple of movies and then the lights turn down low.  It's a completely different matter when you pop onto the return flight at 8 am, are fed dinner, watch a couple of movies and then the windows are shuttered and the lights turned low.  All I can tell you is to dress in comfortable clothes (preferably layers); take your shoes off, keep hydrated and do the best you can. For me, it's the air conditioning that gets to me; I have long pants which can be rolled up, sweaters that can be removed and socks.  When you can't settle down don't sit there; get up, walk around, stretch a few times. . . everybody does it.  While the jet lag isn't excruciating by any means, we estimated a full week before our bodies were 'back to normal' and we had our poop back in a group. . . literally. And maybe age affects us:  my nephew and his wife clearly told me it took them a week of sleeping to adjust.  When I heard they were expecting their 2nd child, I did the math and I'm pretty sure they weren't sleeping that week. . . just saying. . . .

So, now we know why everybody rants and raves about Australia.  I would certainly go back but next time, I would do it quite differently.  Rather than hopping all over the place, I think I would plant myself in a nice room somewhere that could be used as a base, and make trips from there. Airfare is inexpensive and the continent is very well connected.   And I think I would rather go for two months. . . at least.  Until next time. . .