Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Happy Canada Day! Some great Canadian ideas for travellers

You can hike or canoe to Grey Owl's cabin in Saskatchewan.
So you want to experience an iconic Canadian moment, eh?

Well, if you're planning a trip to Canada, here are some of the really great experiences you should set your sights on if you're planning a trip to Canada.

I do admit a bit of bias, since I love getting outdoors and experiencing nature. Most of these are all experiences I've enjoyed myself and I've tried to include all parts of the country. It was really tough keeping it to 10, but I had to stop somewhere, or I'd be still be writing.

1. Paddle a canoe in Algonquin Provincial Park. For me, paddling in this park is the ultimate experience, although not everyone likes to "rough it." But even doing it just once should bring immense rewards. Gliding past scenery immortalized by artist Tom Thomson, you can see otters playing in a creek, herons winging overhead, raccoons and deer sauntering along the shore; you'll here the wild and iconic sound of a loon. There are plenty of ways to do it. You can rent canoes and do your own trip and supply your own meals; you can get the folks at the Portage Store to outfit you; you can even hire a guiding service if you're a neophyte wilderness paddler. If an overnight trip is too much, just take a canoe out for a few hours. Lodges like Killarney provide free canoes for their guests.

2. Take in an NHL game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens. While the Leafs have been pretty bad lately, there's still something about the atmosphere in the arena when these two decades-old rivals meet. Despite the Leafs' recent woes, they are still #2 in total Stanley Cup wins - second only to Montreal. Plan well in advance, or be prepared to pay exorbitant scalpers' prices in either Toronto or Montreal. If you just can't get tickets, then take in a CFL game. It's a bit different from the NFL experience and much more affordable in any of the league's nine cities.

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Be sure to paddle a canoe in Algonquin. 
You might even have time to fish.

3. Go polar bear or beluga whale watching in Manitoba. This is still on my "to-do" list. The province is world-renowned for getting visitors up close to the big white bruins in "bear-buggies." At certain times of the year (summer) it's possible to see bears from Zodiacs in the Churchill area. As for Belugas ... you can see them from rafts, or even snorkel alongside them.

4. Visit Grey Owl's cabin in Prince Albert National Park. A man ahead of his time in terms of espousing a conservation ethic, the man portrayed by Pierce Brosnan in the 1999 film worked as a warden in this central Saskatchewan park and his cabin on Lake Ajawaan is still there. You can hike in all the way, or you can combine a visit as part of a canoe trip in the park's back country. There are great wildlife and bird watching opportunities here.

You can get poutine burgers in Vancouver,
but for the best poutine, try Quebec.
5. Eat something Canadian. You want poutine? You can get it just about anywhere, but if you want the best, get it in Quebec, since this combination of French fries, cheese curds, and gravy originated in that province. What about butter tarts? There's actually butter tart trails and tours in Ontario. If you're in Ottawa, be sure to sample a beaver tail (it's a pastry, not an actual rodent appendage.) Ottawa also has a poutine-fest, if you can't get to Quebec.

6. Spend some time among the dinosaurs. Alberta's badlands offer a couple of great places to look into the past. Dinosaur Provincial Park, near Brooks, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Guided hikes take you into places where you can see fossils. It also is home to the field station for the Royal Tyrell Museum. The museum proper is near Drumheller. The scenery in both places is spectacular, especially if you don't really associate deserts and hoodoos with Canada.

7. Hike to the Lake Agnes Teahouse. This sits above gorgeous Lake Louise, Alberta. Spend an afternoon hiking up the switchbacks of this trail and enjoy incredible views of the lake, then enjoy homemade soup, sandwiches, and cookies before heading back down to the trailhead.

It's hard to beat the beauty of a badlands sunset.
8. Visit Spirit Island. Sitting halfway down Jasper National Park's Maligne Lake, this spot may be one of the most photographed places in Canada. Tour boats take visitors down to this spot. You can also paddle there in a canoe or kayak, as there are a pair of backcountry campsites on the lake, halfway down and at the end of the lake.

9. Raft the Fraser River. Roaring through Hell's Gate on a motorized whitewater raft was one of my bucket list items I crossed off very early when I moved out west several years ago. I liked it so much, I did it again, three years later. After shooting through the rapids, take time to ride the gondola across the river which will give you a birds' eye view of what you've been through.

10. Go puffin-watching in Cape Breton. This Nova Scotia island offers much for visitors to enjoy, but if you like birds and wildlife, you won't want to miss out on the opportunity to see these cute-looking birds that look something like a cross between a penguin and a parrot. This is another one on my "to-do" list, which I hope to check off next year.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Turnabout is fair play: when a former resident becomes a tourist

Be a tourist in your own town.
A burger of "mass destruction" served up for lunch
 at The Burgernator, Kensington Market.

That's the advice provided to many people, who, due to work scheduling issues, budgetary restraints, health concerns, and other factors (like the inability to find an acceptable parrot-sitter!), cannot take a holiday or vacation away from home.

In other words, a "stay-cation."

It's also given out to travel writers looking for new places to write about. If you want to find a story or story angle that's new in order to pitch an editor an idea unique to the countless other pitches he or she receives during the course of business, try to find something new or unique about your own city that is relatively unknown or not written about previously.

Well, there's another kind of spin on that type of activity.

How about you go back to a city you essentially grew up in, used to know it like the back of your hand, but haven't been there, haven't really spent any time there for at least a few decades? And an old friend, but one who did not grow up there, but has now lived there for 30 years acts as a "tour guide" taking you to places you'd never been to, and knows the city better than you ever did.

For some, that might be a bit jarring. But not me. I experienced it the first week of June and I just rolled with it and enjoyed the whimsical irony about it and pondered about the twists of fate and caprice that lead us to those positions.

Got a rant? Check out this alley.
It works well for Rick Mercer.
I spent a very busy but enjoyable day touring around a few spots in Toronto with an old friend, Dan Arsenault, who I actually hadn't seen since 1977.

Dan is one of those people who was a real catalyst in my life, one of what I like to term "pivotal people," individuals who have a significant impact on one's life, regardless of how long your friendship exists.

We met during Frosh Week at the University of New Brunswick in the fall of 1975, and really hit it off.

We hung out together, drank and partied together, had long discussions late in to the night - and it was Dan who introduced me to the writing of J.R.R. Tolkien and that Middle Earth universe.

But that's not what he did that was so pivotal.

Dan was the one who got me involved in media.

He was in arts, I was in forestry. Like a lot of freshmen, I was overwhelmed by all the extracurricular activities provided for students on campus. I wanted to do it all! I eventually tried fencing, joined the UNB Outdoors Club (they didn't have a paddling club then, or I certainly would have joined it!), the UNB Forestry Association, and probably a few others I've forgotten. And maybe even a few I could not join...("What? You mean I have to be in the faculty of nursing to join the UNB Nursing Society??" There went that idea for meeting single females...)

But Dan, who did a show on CHSR 700, the carrier current AM campus station, kept telling me I should join, that I'd probably be good at it, and really enjoy it. Eventually I listened, and joined, and was part of the executive that helped transition the station to a low-power FM station in 1981.

And at that point, although the writing was not quite on the wall yet, and it would take a few more years, it really was, "Sayonara, forestry degree!"

That first year zipped past, and then it was spring, time to go home for the summer. Dan, went home to Chipman, New Brunswick, I went back to Newmarket, Ontario.

We kept in touch over the summer, mainly via letters (this was LONG before email, the Internet and social media), and a few phone calls. During the summer, Dan told me he was not coming back to UNB in the fall, as he needed to take some time off to figure out what he really wanted to do with his life.

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Wandering around the Distillery District, looking for a lunch spot. 

I felt not exactly devastated, but certainly at a loss. However, life went on. Dan dropped in to the campus a few times for a visit, but we eventually lost touch. He moved out to Alberta, I continued on at UNB, and so it went.

Eventually, I graduated (with a business administration degree) and moved out west to begin work at a weekly newspaper, the Barrhead Leader. Little did I know at the same time, my gone-but-not-forgotten pal was moving from Alberta to Toronto.

Fast forward to April 2011. I was just back from Thailand, and somehow we re-connected on Facebook. Then, when I realized I'd be spending a few days in Toronto in early June, I thought of Dan and how much I'd like to see him again.

So we arranged it, met up and hung around Kensington Market for a few hours - one of those places I always knew about but never went to, growing up in Toronto.

We had lunch at a cool little burger joint, did a bit of window shopping, drank some coffee, and just caught up on, oh, 40 years of living.
One of the pieces of public art on display in
Toronto's Distillery District.

Dan was a great tour guide. He knew the area well, even knew some of the merchants there, and it was an enjoyable few hours.

He also took me down an alley, not far from the market area. It was the graffiti-filled alley where TV host Rick Mercer conducts his "rants."

But it didn't stop there.

We hopped a streetcar and rode over to the Distillery District, an area I'd just heard about recently and spent some more time wandering and drinking coffee and chatting.

Dan really knows the city well, and that gave me the opportunity to look at Toronto differently than I had in the past. When taking other friends back there, I'd always been the one "guiding" us to where we wanted to go. This time, I just went along for the ride.

Try it some time. You'll probably get new perspectives and maybe a fresh appreciation for places you'd known or known about years ago.

While it was great seeing parts of the city I'd never seen before, basically, seeing it as a tourist might, of much greater importance was my re-connecting, in person, with someone who I've always considered a special friend, someone whose presence in my life had a profound impact on it.

And it was like we'd never even been apart for 40 years.

That's friendship.

You can travel the world and maybe never find something like that. Or, to paraphrase Irish novelist George Moore, you can travel the world in search of what you need, and return home to find it.

Spending time with good friends is like that: it's a return home.


Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Peterborough well worth the wait

Little Lake in Peterborough's Millenium Park.
When I was a kid growing up in Newmarket, Ontario, I never spent any time in or around Peterborough. My relationship with the city consisted of turning on CHEX-TV to watch a hockey game not on the regular CBC stations or a football game that was blacked out in the immediate Toronto area.

Peterborough was always that place that I was in a hurry to get through or past or around to get to Algonquin Provincial Park and later, Outlet Beach (now Sandbanks) Provincial Park.

My dad and I almost stayed at a fishing marina outside Peterborough one summer trip, but neither of us was much of a fisherman, it wasn't really set up for camping (although there was a place to pitch a tent) so I voted to go to Algonquin instead and off we went.

Learning to carve a canoe paddle with Russ Parker.
Later on, it was that place that Roger Neilson coached (the OHL's Petes) before beginning his NHL career in Toronto with the Maple Leafs. (A street in Peterborough is named after the late icon).

Of course, all of that was before a group of far-sighted individuals established the Canadian Canoe Museum. It also pre-dated the establishment of many of the great provincial parks like Kawarthas Highlands and Petroglyphs Provicinal Parks in the area.

And it was probably before the local dining scene, craft beer industry, wide diversity of independent coffee shops and many of the other aspects of current life that made Peterborough the thriving but very liveable community it is today.

I'm now finally getting the chance to explore the area and everything it has to offer.
Brewmaster Doug Warren serves up some craft beer.

So far, I've spent two days carving a canoe paddle at the canoe museum, followed by a paddle across Little Lake (which boasts its own huge fountain in the middle of the lake). I also enjoyed several fine meals and sampled some of the craft beers mentioned above.

I expect that to continue over the next few days with another visit to the canoe museum (yeah, I'm a canoehead!) a possible river cruise along the Trent River, and more fine dining (Peterborough actually has more restaurants per capita than Toronto).

So in many ways, I'm getting the best of Peterborough, arguably a better experience than I might have had all those years ago as a youngster.

I can certainly appreciate these kinds of enjoyments better than I would have back then.

So from my perspective, I waited until just the perfect time.

Good things really do come to those who wait...

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View of the river from the balcony of my hotel room at Best Western Otonabbee Inn.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Back to Burlington (Ontario - NOT Vermont)

The beacon at the end of the pier.
Mention the name "Burlington" to most people, and there's a good chance they'll say, "Vermont?"

Ditto, if you search for it in Google: When you type "Burlington" into the search engine, it will start to auto fill the search with "Burlington, Vermont."

Now I'm sure the New England state's Burlington is very nice. I hear it's great for winter sports. But there's another Burlington in southern Ontario that's just as nice - or maybe even nicer.

I recently had a chance to return to this small but thriving community of 170,00 that lies on the shores of Lake Ontario, between Toronto and Hamilton.

I say "return" because many, many years ago, I used to visit there regularly with my parents. Of course, a six-year-old's memories are not always detailed and accurate. But I do remember some very specific things, very well.

We went to Burlington to visit my dad's best and oldest friend, Bill Hughes and his wife, Ethel. They were such close friends, that up until I hit puberty, I referred to them as "uncle" and "aunt."

I remember they lived in an apartment duplex of some sort that involved having to go up stairs. I think it might have been some type of semi-detached abode with the different dwellings being up and downstairs rather than side-by-side.

The thing I do remember quite distinctly, though, is an encounter I had with Pixie, the Hughes' calico cat.

I'm an animal lover, always have been. In my last blogpost, I wrote about my first encounter with a pet bird named Joey; Pixie the cat was the second pet I encountered. I liked her - but she didn't like me, at least not then. I had dumped some potato chip crumbs on the living room rug and was trying to feed her the chips, when she reached out and scratched me on the hand, drawing blood. After that, I avoided her until I was 14 - when she decided I was okay, and jumped up on my chest and promptly went to sleep, purring.

Anyway, that's about all I remember about my time in Burlington. I don't recall doing anything there but visiting and getting scratched by a cat (although I did not get cat-scratch fever).


Entrance to the RBG Lilac Walk.
There may not have been that much to do in Burlington in the early 1960s, anyway, it was probably seen by many as just a suburb or bedroom community of Hamilton.

THAT'S certainly changed, as I found out on a recent two-day trip to the area.

I discovered there is much to offer visitors and residents alike - and I didn't get scratched by a cat, this time (although I did see an adorable baby raccoon and a Blanding's turtle at the Nature Interpretive Centre of the Royal Botanical Gardens.)

Take for example, the RBG I just mentioned. It's HUGE. So huge in fact, they run shuttles between the various areas to give visitors the best opportunity to experience everything the gardens have to offer: the Tea House/Centennial Rose Garden, the reflecting pools, Laking Garden (with its iris collection), the Marshwalk Trail (a must for bird lovers), and the Lilac Collection, to name but a few.

If you like your nature a little wilder, Crawford Lake Conservation Area may be a place where you'll want to spend some time. A 468-hectare park, it includes 19 kilometres of trails, one of which connects with the Rattlesnake Point Conservation Area, as well as the Bruce and Nassageaweya Trails.

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Approaching Crawford Lake.

The lake is a meromictic lake, with the bottom half of the lake a virtual "dead zone" of water that never circulates with the layer above.


One of the many carvings at Crawford Lake.
Crawford Lake is encircled by a boardwalk, making it easy to traverse the one-kilometre circumference.

Another unique aspect of the trails in this conservation area can be seen in the shape of wildlife sculptures that sit along the trails at various spots. You'll see fish, birds, a wolf, a turtle, a butterfly, and many other critters.

Burlington has access to a much bigger lake, of course. There are many ways to enjoy the Great Lake known as Ontario. You can stroll along the 137-metre pier to the beacon at the end and climb up for a better view.

If you like something a bit more active, Burlington Beach Rentals provides several options for outdoor enthusiasts, including yoga on the beach, kayaking, stand-up paddling, paddleboats - and for those needing to recover from playing, beach massage from one of its RMTs.

Or you can just rent a Muskoka beach chair, stake out a spot on the sand, kick back and chill.


One of the Iroquoian longhouses.
There's lots there for history buffs, too. Crawford Lake not only conserves nature, it also conserves culture.

On site sits an Iroquoian Village, reconstructed and representative of the life of a 15th-century native village that existed by the lake before European explorers showed up.

Several longhouses contain artifacts and displays inside them, depicting life as it was 600 years ago.

The Joseph Brant Museum and Ireland House at Oakridge Farm also present different aspects of the area's history, giving you a glance back at the past.

For a more kid-friendly "farm" experience, Springridge Farm offers a petting zoo, wagon rides, mechanical puppet shows - and some features for adults as well: a general store and a bakery full of good eats (try the salted honey tarts - a Springridge specialty).

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The kids love the mechanical chicken puppets at Springridge Farm.

All that is certainly different from what I experienced as a child during visits to Burlington. And although I did see a rather intimidating tom turkey wandering around Springridge, I didn't see any scary-looking calico cats there...



Thursday, May 28, 2015

When death becomes part of a travel tradition

Dad fixes the tent, our first ever camping trip in Ontario.
He passed away while we were both on camping weekends.
A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about odd travel traditions. Many of us have them, and we look foward to practising them every time we leave for a trip.

However, there is one rather odd and somewhat sobering travel tradition that seems to pop up in my life with some disturbing frequency.

It seems people in my immediate family often choose to die when I am away on a trip of some kind.

That's not to say every time I travel, somebody close to me passes away. If that really was the case, I might stop travelling. Or at least give it some strong consideration.

I guess it could be seen as just one of those weird quirks that happens because I'm a travel writer, and I'm probably away travelling more than the average person.

However, this disturbing trend developed before I started travel writing seriously.

In 1992, my father passed away while I was on a weekend camping trip, at Bear Mountain, near Dawson Creek, B.C (yes, there is a real place by that name - not "Dawson's Creek' - and it's been around for a long time). It happened on a Saturday night, the night before Father's Day. We didn't have cellphones then, so no one could get in touch with me until I returned home Sunday afternoon.

Close to 10 years later, my father-in-law passed away just as we were heading out to enter Lakeland Provincial Park, Alberta, for a four-day canoe trip. If we had been a few hours earlier heading out, we might not have known for four days.

Then, in 2007, while on a four-day kayak trip in the 10,000 Islands region of Everglades National Park, my mother passed away. Again, no one could reach me until I returned from that trip.

That one was particularly tough. Mom had been ill for quite a while with Myelodysplastic syndrome and had gone into the hospital in Toronto a few weeks before. She never got out.

It was tough for many reasons. An only child, it meant I had no immediate family left - no parents, no siblings - in some ways, I'd never felt more alone, even though I had other family members to help me get through my grief period.

An egret wading in the 10,000 Islands.
I shot this image the morning my mother passed away.
What made it more difficult was the fact I was so far away - and I was only halfway through the trip, as I'd made plans to spend a week in the Florida Keys following the paddling trip with Crystal Seas Kayaking. I had interviews lined up with some parrot sanctuaries and tourist facilities, lodging arranged for, and flights booked. And I had to complete the second half of my journey with a heavy heart.

I know many people would have returned home as soon as they found out. However, the life of a freelance travel writer sometimes demands that you make sacrifices, make choices, that people who are just vacationing, do not have to make.

That's one of the things the average person probably does not consider when they imagine what a travel writer does for a living. Once a schedule of accomodations, meals, and other elements of a trip have been set up with tourism boards, a travel writer has an obligation to fulfill those, particularly when the rooms have been set aside, and usually paid for by the boards - and they won't be getting a refund for them.

Also, if a story has been already promised to a publication, the writer needs to try to meet that committment. Leaving a destination, then trying to return later, rarely works out. While most editors and most tourism boards will understand in the event of a death in the family, they may still hesitate to work with you going forward.

I certainly would never judge or criticize anyone in a situation like this, no matter what their choice. It is their life, their decision.

However, that kind of decision is never easy to make. I struggled, and in the end I chose to stay and try to meet my commitments. I know that's what my mother would have wanted me to do, had she been given the choice, and knowing that, the choice was wee bit easier than it might have been.

It certainly does bring a different feel, a different perspective to a trip, though.

This odd trend happened again, just recently.

Margaret and David, on their wedding day.
On the second day of my recent trip to Mexico the first week of May, I received a text message from an aunt in New Westminster, B.C. My uncle had passed away in a hospice, the victim of colon cancer. I hadn't actually had any contact with him much since 1971. My dad's younger brother, he moved out west suddenly back then, and shunned contact from the family.

When I moved to Vancouver in 2003, I did try to connect with him, actually spoke on the phone once, but he made it clear he really didn't want any contact. I repeatedly sent him Christmas cards with notes about meeting for coffee, but never got a response.

Then just after Easter, I got a call from his wife, Margaret, telling me he'd been hospitalized. I had a chance to finally visit with him then, for an hour or so, and I was grateful for it. A few days later, he was placed in a hospice.

Three days before I left for Mexico, a phone call came, telling me he would do well if he made it to his birthday, May 8.

Off I went to Mexico, and then came the news he had passed away two days before his birthday.

Again, that odd travel tradition had reared its head.

As it turns out, the memorial service is scheduled for the day I leave for Ontario for three weeks, so it's like a double whammy. I won't be able to attend that service.

My memories of David go back to when I was a four-year-old spending most of my days at my Grandmother Geary's house, as both my parents worked. Three memories stand out specifically.

David (who was still living at home then) had a pet bird named Joey, a budgie. So I guess my fascination with birds (like parrots) began at a very early age. That was the first pet of any kind I ever encountered. I used to sit there talking to Joey every day.

Not me - but it could easily be. But I'd be marching.
(Photo via Webshots.com)
The second memory that springs to mind involves music.

When I was four, I always used to watch the old black-and-white Popeye cartoons; he was the first "super-hero" I cheered on. In many of the old 'toons, whenever Popeye would eat his spinach and get ready to beat the crap out of Bluto or some other deserving bad guy, the John Philip Sousa march, "The Stars and Stripes Forever," would start to play. So I just loved that song.

Turns out David had a copy of it in his collection of marching music. He would play it for me often, and I would march around the room in time to the music, later on adding a toy trumpet to my performance, which became a regular occurrence, at least once or twice a week.

Robin Hood blows his horn.
 (Image from http://benito-cereno.tumblr.com/)
The third memory includes some physical mementoes.

When David married Margaret (at the age of eight, the first wedding I ever went to, and I remember stuffing myself with sausage rolls at the reception!) and they went on their honeymoon, they brought me back several pennants from their travels in the Williamsburg, Va. area.

They also brought back a cow horn, hollowed out and complete with a mouthpiece to blow on.

It became a go-to prop for when I played Robin Hood, and later a "powder horn" for playing Daniel Boone/Davey Crockett/Hawkeye.

I still have it, and I still have the pennants.

I'll never forget any of those memories. Just like I'll never forget David.

So, what's the point of all this, in a blog that is supposed to be about travel?

It's this: Make sure the people in your life that you care about - family, friends, partners - KNOW that you care about them. Especially, try not to leave to go on any trip on bad terms with the important people in your life. God forbid, but they may not be there when you get back.

Life is a journey, but it's the people we meet along our path during that journey that help to make it so rich and rewarding. When one of them leaves, that journey seems a bit less rich.

While you're pondering that, remember this: You never know when someone you care about will be taken from you.


Playing this one for you, David.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Mexican food: much more than just beans & tortillas

Anyone want to share my molcajente?
I love Mexican food.

I think I have always loved Mexican food, ever since I ate a bowl of chilli while watching The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The first dish I ever learned to cook from scratch - chilli con carne - was one that at least has its roots in Mexico.

(And it's still one of my go-to dishes after 40 years; a favourite to cook, to share - and to eat.)

It does seem at times, that at least part of my life is a constant quest to find a good, authentic Mexican restaurant in my home city (currently Vancouver). Not easy in a city that is dominated by Asian cuisine.

I have managed to find a few pretty good ones, and some not so great.

And when I say "Mexican restaurants," I'm NOT talking about Taco Time or Taco Bell - despite claims, fast food places like that do NOT take you "south of the border" or anyone near it, for that matter.

However, after a recent trip to Mexico - my first to that country - I may have to re-think how I define "Mexican cuisine."

Yes, I did enjoy some traditional hearty fare associated with Mexico: fajitas, refried beans, taquitos, that sort of thing.

But even within that class of food, I discovered something new, a breakfast staple served in most Mexican restaurants: chilaquiles.

This dish mainly consists of corn tortillas cut in triangles or totopos, lightly fried and covered with green or red salsa, then simmered until the totopos are soft. It's usually garnished with a form of sour cream, and may or may not include onion rings, avocado slices, and pulled chicken. They're often served with refried beans, eggs, and guacamole. You'll find them in almost any Mexican breakfast buffet.

That aside, for the most part, I enjoyed a very different, in some ways, entirely new level and style of exquisite dishes prepared by Mexican chefs, cuisine you would not normally associate with Mexico.

Part of the reason for that was because of where we were on the Pacific coast - in Puerto Vallarta; that location influences local chefs, who have easy access to a huge variety of fresh seafood available regularly.

It all began the first night at a special opening gala for the event I was attending, the North American Travel Journalists 2015 conference. We dined alfresco, feasting on escargots, lamb shanks, lobster ravioli, Chilean sea bass, and cheese empanadas.

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Some fun with food, at the River Cafe.

The trend continued the next night, during a dine-around event. I ended up at an eatery called the River Cafe, where we enjoyed live music and a tasting menu that included smoked salmon crostini, Pacific jumbo shrimp, and Sonora beef tenderloin.

It just kept getting better. The next night, we were wined and dined at La Leche, a very uniquely decorated eatery which consisted of high ceilings, and shelves along all the walls that went up to the ceilings. The shelves contained tins and canisters, all done in white with the restaurant's logo/name emblazoned on them. There, I had the opportunity to try a variety of different dishes in their seven-course line-up. The menu changes nightly, and it's written on a chalkboard.

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You really have to be inside La Leche to appreciate it.


About an hour's drive out of Puerto Vallarta lies Canopy River Adventures. We enjoyed our final meal of the conference there, on a covered patio. It was a bit more traditional, with an option for beef, chicken or fish entrees, accompanied by tortillas, guacamole, and roasted peppers.

As you can see by reading the above, the cuisine in this country is incredibly varied.

But wait, there's more...

As part of my stay in Mexico, I spent two days in Riviera Nayarit. Our first day's lunch was in El Brujo (obviously a very popular name for a restaurant in the village of Bucerias, as there were three different eateries going by that name). This one fronted on the beach.

That was quite a unique experience, in many ways.

Never expected to be eating "Asian" while in Mexico.
For one thing, there was a steady stream of peddlers trying to sell us their wares, everything from necklaces to hats, massages to music (we were serenaded by a pair of Mexican troubadours who wouldn't stop until we paid them!), cigars to postcards.

Then there was the Tim Horton's sign on the beach, offering fresh coffee, smoothies, beer and Caesars on the beach, each day. Hmmm....

The food provided me with something different, too. I opted for the "Mixed Molcajete" - a mixture of grilled chicken, shrimp, beef, guacamole, cheese and peppers served in a broth contained in a heated stone dish called a molcajete (as pictured at the top).

That night, it was back to fine dining at the Marival. Again, the food was matched only by the view from the balcony dining room. We were served a variety of dishes in "threes," including a dish of Asian delicacies that included spring rolls, a Mediterranean trio that included a lamb shank, and one with three different types of seafood.

La Palomas sent us home in style. Not only was the ambiance and decor distinctly Mexican, the food was all based on Mexican-derived dishes.

Not sure I'll be able to conquer this dish like Huitzilopochtli.
I enjoyed Aztec tortilla soup (chicken broth, corn chips, cheese, avocado and sour cream), Aztec salad (mushrooms in sage oil and honey with arugula and cottage cheese), and Huitzilopochtli's Conquest (essentially ground tenderloin beef, some fruits and vegetables and a creamy sauce served up in a roasted bell pepper).

All this incredible food made it really hard to go back to Vancouver and the standard Mexican fare prepared by even the best restaurants (or even my own Mexican menus!).

Yep...I've been kicked up to a "new bracket" of Mexican food. Nothing will ever be quite the same again.

So now I'm not really sure if I should be thankful for this - or maybe just a little bit ticked off at Puerto Vallarta...

video

A pair of Mexican troubadours on the beach at Bucerias,
to send you on your way.


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Feeling travel bored? Start your own weird travel tradition

"It's become sort of a McCallister family travel tradition ... funnily enough, we never lose our luggage!"
- from Home Alone 2: Lost in New York

A whopper and a coke for the road, in Bangkok.
Many families - and for that matter, many individuals - have created and practised their own unique travel traditions over the years.

I'm no different.
Except my personal tradition might be considered a bit weirder than most.

I didn't plan it - it just sort of evolved as a result of being hungry and bored, with time to spare in an airport.

It all began several years ago, at the end of a long press trip to Malaysia.


A group of Canadian travel writers, including Yours Truly, were wrapping a two-week long tour through the country, guests of Tourism Malaysia. We'd spent most of our time on the island of Borneo,  but a few days at the beginning and end of the trip took place in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, which is located on the mainland.

We got to the airport in plenty of time. We were looking at a long flight back to Vancouver via Taipei, Taiwan, flying on Eva Air.

I spent a bit of time wandering around, thinking back over the past fortnight's adventures and looking forward to getting back home to hang out with my parrots - Nikki, Coco, and Einstein - and do a bit of paddling - which I'd not had the chance to do while in Malaysia (although we did make use of motorized canoes to visit an Iban village in the Sarawak area, visiting and enjoying a meal with the former headhunters.)

Before I go any further, I should tell you one thing you may not realize about modern-day airports, is the fact that North American culture has pretty much taken over them, no matter where in the world you go. Want a Starbucks' latte in Lima, Peru? No problem. Craving something from the Colonel in Changi (Singapore)? You got it.

Anyway, we got through security and I had already done more shopping than I wanted to do on this trip, so I was bored. And a bit hungry. And although I love Asian food - especially some of the Malaysian dishes - after two weeks of nothing but that type of food, I was ready for something else.

And there, like an oasis on the desert, rising out of the horizon, appeared a Burger King.

Now, I'm not a huge BK fan; I really don't like the fact they bought Tim Horton's recently. But, it is what it is, and life goes on. Besides, this goes back a few years.

I thought to myself, "It would be kind of cool and bizarre to say I ate at a Burger King in Malaysia. And at least it's not McDonald's..."

So I went in, placed an order, sat down and ate.

It tasted pretty much like the BK food you'd get in Canada. I enjoyed it and didn't give it much thought afterward.

Fast forward a few years, and I'm wandering around the airport in Bangkok, waiting to catch a Cathay Pacific flight back home. And when what to my wandering eyes did appear - but a BK outlet, to my gate, very near.

Of course, I had to go in and have a burger. This time I even snapped a pic and posted it on my Facebook page.

And at that point, it officially became my very own eclectic travel tradition. Forthwith, from hereon in, whenever I exit a foreign land, I vow to eat a meal at a BK outlet before boarding the plane.

I had a chance to add to it recently - but I had to make an adjustment.

When you can't find BK, go for a JR.
If you're a Facebook friend, you may have seen it: I posted a photo of my burger-rings-milkshake lunch at the Puerto Vallarta airport en route from Mexico back to Canada earlier this week.

However, there was no BK there. So I had to make do with a Johnny Rocket's. That's okay - it was still good. Maybe even better than BK (which wouldn't really be that hard). But - the tradition continued.

So....

Do you have an odd travel tradition you follow regularly? I'd love to hear it in the comments below.

It doesn't have to involve food, or be weird (but if it is, GREAT!) or even be very elaborate. Just something you do every time you travel.

If you do NOT have one, why not think one up? It will at least give you something to do or think about it next time you're waiting for a flight home.




I didn't see any ninjas at the KL Airport BK - but then I didn't look very hard. 
And they're tough to spot (that's why they're ninjas.)