March 2018: A Much Needed Tropical Trip

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I decided in January that I was overdue for a tropical vacation, and after one of the snowiest, coldest winters I have experienced in my entire life in Calgary, I needed OUT!

I decided to try somewhere new for a seven-day escape.

Not surprisingly, it wasn’t too difficult to convince my mom to join me. 🙂

Our route to Belize from Calgary made for a long day; three flights, three airlines, and an arrival 12 hours after first take off. We left for the airport at 3:30am, and were on the plane at 6:00am headed for Texas. From Houston we flew to Belize City. From there we walked to the local airline and flew 45 minutes (with one stopover) to arrive at the south end of the Belizean peninsula: Placencia.

We stepped off the plane along with one other gentleman who was greeted by a big enthusiastic group of American ex-pats. My mum said “well, you folks seem like a lot of fun! Can we come home with you?” to which one gentleman replied “Sure! Welcome to Belize! Wanna beer?” and preceeded to walk straight over to his golf cart and crack two Belekin Beers and hand them to us without waiting for a reply.

He introduced himself as Eugene, and he and his wife own the Pickled Parrot in Placencia, a bar ‘with the best burgers in town’! He invited us to the bar that evening for dinner and live music by a buddy of his visiting from the U.S.

We arrived at the Serenade Hotel and met the hotel manager Anna, who became our go-to lady for all things local. She showed us to our room that came complete with microwave, mini fridge, and air conditioner. The A/C was quite the pleasant surprise as in previous vacations we were used to having only a ceiling fan (if we were lucky).

The humidity and warm evening was perfect for a little exploring, and after spraying our ankles with Deep Woods Off (in perhaps a too-optimistic, attempted defense of the inevitable sand-flea bites), we took off down the boardwalk behind the hotel. This pathway is poured concrete faux-finished to look like wood, and goes all through Placencia to the south end at the pier.

Lots of local artists carve conch shells, calabash and coconut shells, and natural wood into jewelry, serving dishes, and beautiful art.

The forecast here was 28 degrees celcius. Every day. (The LOW was 23 or 24 degrees.) Magical. We never needed a sweater in the evening and the days were sunny at best and partially cloudy at ‘worst’- in the way you actually don’t mind when a few clouds roll over and give you a little reprieve from the heat.

We found the Pickled Parrot and were welcomed first by Eugene’s two dogs and later a cat as we found a seat at a picnic table on the side of the bar. This place was busy! We had our first pina coladas of the trip and ordered burgers, fries, and onion rings.

The Belizean dollar is worth half the American Dollar, so our original thought of a $20 burger being a bit pricey turned into the realization that it was closer to $12 CAD which was totally reasonable. The Pickled Parrot is cash only, and we were told that it is pretty common for places in town to only accept cash (both American and Belizean currency.)

The music was great, the burgers were excellent, and Eugene made us feel very welcome, introducing us to some regulars sitting nearby who quickly gave us the rundown of must-see and must-do things for our week on the peninsula.

We were walking back to our hotel when the sound of drumming pulled us further up the boardwalk and we found ourselves at the Tipsy Tuna and a performance of drumming that we later learned was Garifuna (also spelled Garafina) traditional music, and dancing. It was mostly kids, dressed in traditional Garifuna costume, and tourists and locals were enjoying the rhythm on the dance floor. Although we were too tired to join in, we couldn’t help but bounce along to the music. This is a weekly event at the Tipsy Tuna, so we felt fortunate to catch it on our first night in town.

One of the things we always love about the Caribbean is that the sound of the waves and the wind in the palm trees feel like they immediately lower our heart rates. ❤️

We also noticed that over the week we were there, our walking pace definitely slowed.

Plancencia has some of the nicest people I have met in the Caribbean, and people always said hello and good morning and good night as you passed on the boardwalk or on the main road. It felt even safer than Nassau!

Our first morning found us over at a tiny little building that was no more than a counter that seats about 5 people, a stove with two burners, a sink , and a fridge. And the best burritos I have ever had for $4 each! Anna told us they had the best fresh juice in town, and we ordered orange and watermelon to go with our breakfast. (This was another place that only took cash- and exact change only!)

We were anxious to get to the beach, and as we were told the ocean side of the peninsula was too hard to swim at due to all the seaweed, we headed down to the south end next to the pier and found a good patch of sand to throw down our towels and summer dresses and we leapt into the water.

To give you an idea of the ocean here, these are views of the Belizeans shoreline from the tiny plane we took to and from Placencia.

I’m pretty sure the ocean around Belize is more shallow for further out than anywhere I have been in the Caribbean, and the temperature reflected that. It was practically warm! We were slightly constrained as to how far out we could swim as the boats coming in and out of the harbor are constant (and the harbor master on the pier will yell at you, we quickly learned!).

There wasn’t much to see using our snorkels in this spot, but we had been assured by Anna that the real beautiful water and snorkeling was out off the mainland at reefs. It requires the hiring of a boat, and she knew just who to call. She phoned her friend Rudy as we chatted with her at the hotel and told him “Get over here right away! I know I know, but you are only five minutes away, so you can spare a little time to come and talk to these ladies!”

Rudy and Rudy Jr. arrived and we were informed that Rudy Jr is a certified boat operator who can take us out for either a half-day or full-day excursion. We opted for a full day trip which would include lunch and a stop on an island that had a natural pool and hammocks. We booked for the next day.

Rudy & Rudy Jr.

After a full lazy afternoon of sunbathing and swimming in looped repetition, we decided to try the Tipsy Tuna for dinner, and ordered wings and conch fritters and iced tea. We shared a big table with a couple from Lake Tahoe who were quick to chat us up and tell us about their road trip adventures exploring Belize and Venezuela over the past 12 days; this was the end of their trip. Theresa and Joey had two days in Placencia, and were considering taking a boat out to go snorkeling, so we suggested they join us the next day, hoping our guides would have room for two more.

Friday morning we got all our snorkeling gear together (yes, we bring our own snorkeling gear) and headed to the meeting spot for our day on the water. Our plans were quickly kai-boshed as the wind was strong that day and the ocean was choppy with white caps. We all agreed that the 30-minute ride out would be too rough and likely the water cloudy from all the waves, so we post-poned until Monday, as the Rudy’s were already booked Saturday and Sunday.

We decided to have another lazy beach day, and wandered along the main street and stopped into the Above Grounds coffee shop – which truly felt like a treehouse – and was a perfect spot to have an iced latte and enjoy the breeze. (They also make delicious baked goods and sell local coffee you can take home as a souvenir.)

Most of the houses in Placencia are on stilts, and we learned that the reasoning behind this was three-fold:

1) The higher you go, the better ocean breeze you get, and since most people cannot afford air conditioning, opening windows and letting the wind blow through was the best way to stay cool.

2) When they get sudden heavy rainstorms there is often flooding, so having your home off the ground means less damage/stress when this happens several times a year.

3) Sand fleas (or ‘no-see-ums’) and other bugs are only active a few feet off the ground so to be a floor above them makes it easier to avoid bug bites.

Friday night we went to Nic’s Restaurant, another recommended spot. We arrived to a pretty full, tiny wrap-around porch where we took a seat at a small table so close to the couple next to us we joked we were joining them for dinner. We ended up ordering a Greek Pizza and Caesar salad to share, and learned that our almost-table-mates ordered a similar meal; they got a Cobb salad and a Belezean Pizza (think: Hawaiian pizza with jalapeno peppers and red onions).

Pete and Sandy were from Missouri and were back in Belize after 12 years, and had just spent one week on a sailboat cruise swimming and snorkeling out along the islands and reefs off the Belizean coast. They were lovely company and we had a great time getting to know them as we ate our respective meals, and then ended up exchanging pizza slices! How often do you share/swap your meal with people at another table?! The magic of Belize. 🙂

We had been told about Taste Belize Tours  and as soon as we saw “Chocolate Waterfall Tour”, we knew what our Saturday plans were. Our tour guide/tour company owner was Lyra, a born-and-raised Belizean who was raised on a cacao farm outside Toledo Belize, and had gone to university in the US to get her doctorate in Anthropology and Food Studies. She was full of information about Belize’s history, the various cultural influences, the indigenous people, and I was lucky enough to sit in the front seat (or, alternatively, be unlucky enough to have the worst motion sickness in the group). There were 12 of us total; my mum and I, a couple from Ontario, and two American couples who were on vacation together with their 3 kids.

It was a two-hour drive to the chocolate farm and along the way we drove past more and less touristy areas, through the a Garifuna town of Barranco- the birthplace of the most famous Belizean musician Andy Palacio. We went past many tiny villages, saw several banana plantations, and drove past large sections of land that are currently being developed into resorts. There is a big boom in real estate in Belize right now, in Placencia specifically.

We also drove through the tropical part of Belize and then suddenly, like a switch had been hit, we were driving through a savanah with dry grasses and tropical pine trees. Apparently the soil quality changes over a few meters to make this huge environment change. And we also found out that we were visiting in the dry season, which meant that many plants were blooming that don’t normally have flowers, like the “Buttercup Flower” tree.

We were greeted at the Ixcacao Farm by Juan, who owns the land and factory with his wife, Abalina.

Juan showed us the cacao tree and we learned about the process of growing cacao in Belize, and things like how succeptible the cacao plants are to disease and fungus, how they require mixed sunlight and shade to prorperly mature and thrive, and how, like coffee and grapes used for wine, the soil and area and local plants influence the final flavor of the cacao.

Two varieties of cacao plants:

Also growing on their property were the calabash tree, which has these beautiful round fruits that are the traditional container (the shell is cut in half and dried) to drink hot chocolate. We also saw these shells carved and decorated as souvenirs you could purchase at various places in Belize.

We went upstairs to a beautiful patio and sat down to try traditional Mayan hot chocolate. When it was poured, it looked like a cloudy caramel-coloured coffee.

There is no milk or cream products in any traditional mayan chocolate, so the ingredients that make up hot chocolate is ground cacao nibs and hot water. It was slightly bitter and tasted like a watered down version of a dark chocolate hot drink without any sugar.

We were instructed to add a tiny pinch of crushed chili powder. Contrary to popular belief, the idea of ‘chili hot chocolate’ that I have known previously, the point is not to make the drink spicy. There is a reaction in the chemical compounds between chilis and cacao that cuts the bitterness so the cacao flavor can be deeper. It was remarkable.

After that we added a tiny bit of cinnamon; this is another ‘classic’ addition to Mayan hot chocolate but is also not traditional, as cinnamon is not naturally found in central American and was introduced by Indian/Middle Eastern influences.

Lastly we were offered sugar to add but we didn’t feel like it needed it.

Juan then opened up a cacao pod to show us the wet seeds and then took us step by step through the entire process of making chocolate.

He let us try the wet seeds straight from the pod and the exterior was a soft, slightly stringy, and sweet coating that tasted somewhat like soursop, or sort of a combo of sweet melon, citrus, and pineapple. And if you bit right through the cacao seed it was bright purple and had not even a hint of chocolate flavor!

They harvest the pods by hand, cut them open and scoop out the wet seeds, letting the sugars in the juice of the pulp ferment, and then they take that liquid to make chocolate liquer, and dry and then roast the remaining seeds.

Dried and roasted seeds:

We were given the roasted seeds and asked to shell them to collect caco nibs that we would then grind to make our own chocolate.

Shelled cacao nibs:

The two granite pieces on the table in front of us were over 150 years old and had matching granite grinding stones that they had used before the factory acquired machinery that could grind large quantities of beans 24 hours a day and increase their output exponentially. (We were informed that 32 cacao beans are required to make one ounce of chocolate. No wonder high quality chocolate is expensive!)

We got a chance to grind the cacao seeds ourselves, and it is hard work! Lyra told us that Abalina ground all the cacao seeds by hand for the first 5 years they owned this farm, which is one of the reasons she is called The Chocolate Queen. (She must have amazing biceps!)

Juan finished grinding the chocolate at a speed that made it look like his arms would fall off, and the emulsification of the cacao seeds and the cacao butter in them was so creamy, it almost looked like it could be scooped up and dropped in a swirl like thick Nutella icing.

We got to try samples of the many kinds of finished chocolate they produced, including orange, ginger, coconut, sea salt, cardamom, and milk chocolate.

We learned about the European discovery of adding powdered milk to chocolate to make it creamier, but that other stabilizing ingredients have to be added when milk is added, which is why the percentage of cacao drops so significantly when it is processed into chocolate products. (And how a Hershey or Nestle milk ‘chocolate’ bar contains less than 10% actual chocolate; artificial flavor and colour has to be added because the finished product no longer tastes or looks like chocolate!)

And then there was the lunch that was included with the tour. This was definitely one of the highlights of our vacation!!

Lunch was created by none other that Abalina; the Chocolate Queen herself. It was a phenomenal spread of the best food we had the entire trip, including chocolate chicken, hearts of palm, cooked greens, beans, tortillas, zucchini and squash, coconut rice, and fried plantain.

As we were leaving we heard a little tune playing on repeat and slowly getting louder. The source of it turned out to be a small truck that was driving by. My mom joked “it’s the local ice-cream truck” and we all chuckled because it had a similar sound. Lyra then looked over at the truck and said “Yes it is, actually!”

We could see a bunch of coolers in the bed of the truck as it went past, and she told us that many of the people in rural Belize do not have refrigeration so this man drives through all the villages and sells ice cream!

On the way back to Placencia, Lyra stopped on the side of the road and introduced us to a group of women who sold palm leaf woven products like baskets and trivets and art. They were kind enough to show us their kitchen where they were making green corn soup and smoking/drying chilis.

A few details-

Drying chilis:

Most rural buildings have these palm-branch roofs:

We loved the way this hinge had been attached to their shutter:

Baskets and trivets and placemats:

These girls were shy to talk to me but were happy to pose for a picture.

On to the waterfall!!

The Coxcomb Ridge is the largest collection of foothills through Belize and we drove up the side of the ridge to spend the afternoon on a private property at a set of three gorgeous jungle waterfalls.

You turn off the main road at the fake Mayan pyramid along the main highway, and you find yourself at a small gate where a man who doesn’t speak a word of English meets you and you hand him $20 per person and he will open the gate so you can drive up to the waterfall.

The Maya King Waterfall:

We drove through a rain storm on the way to the farm, another downfall happened while we were having lunch, but by the time we arrived at the waterfall the weather was perfect and we proceeded to swim in all three pools, sit under the waterfalls, and even try out the natural stone slide in the lower pool area.

Have you heard of the trend at some Asian spas where you can pay for a fish pedicure; tiny fish nibble off the dead skin from your feet? Well in the pools of this waterfall, you get that for free! #notjoking

We got back to the hotel just in time to change for dinner, as we met our Lake Tahoe friends at RumFish at 6pm! Both Mum and I couldn’t resist the special; sesame crusted tuna that had been caught that day! It was absolutely delicious, and we paired it with watermelon mojitos. Dessert was key lime pie and banana crème brulee.

Sunday morning we got a surprise phone call from the Rudys and were told that their day had opened up and the weather was PERFECT for snorkeling, so we dropped our plans to explore up the peninsula and the recommended Turtle Bay beach and Restaurant, and loaded up to take a boat out for the day.

We stopped at three different locations out on the reef, and Rudy Jr let me try my hand at spear-gun fishing. 😁😳

He and his dad went fishing while my mom and I explored the reefs and discovered jellyfish, many varieties of Parrot fish, Angel fish, grouper, conch, and even a couple of medium-sized Nurse Sharks sleeping in a cave of coral!

We arrived at Lark Cay and pulled up to this sweet island with a man-made natural pool on one side, hammocks, and a perfect place to lie in the sun and dry off.

You can actually rent a cabin on this island for $20 USD a night!

The Rudys had caught a grouper, a snapper, a jack fish, a pompineau, and conch for lunch, and proceeded to fillet and cook them up with okra, purple yams, plantain, tomatoes, pineapple, potatoes, shallots, and cilantro in a coconut and spiced broth. We drank water from coconuts they cut down for us while we waited for lunch, enjoyed some iced fruit punch, and then ate this amazing lunch. We even got to take home the leftovers for dinner that night!

By the time we took the boat back the wind had picked up and the water was choppier, so it was perfect timing to head home and apply after-sun aloe vera lotion….

Note to self for next time, bring way more sunscreen, and make sure it is waterproof! We were two cooked Canadians after that day.

Sunday night we stopped for dessert at the gelato place and heard amazing jazz music coming from Chachi’s, the bar upstairs. We made our way up there and got to watch the last hour of a phenomenal 8-piece band jamming out. Soprano and alto sax, flute, 2 guitars, piano, bass, and drums. It was phenomenal! We ended up meeting one of the owners of the bar on our last night there as he and a buddy practiced in the open area downstairs for a gig they had later that week. A couple of music majors from the US decided to come to Placencia, open a pizza restaurant that had a good space for live music.

Monday we enjoyed a shady beach day. Swimming in the salt water felt good on our more-than-sunkissed skin, but we hid under palm trees for most of the day, chasing the shadows as they inched over.

Tuesday we were brave enough to venture out in the sun again and for our last day we decided that some kayaking was in order. The ocean side of the peninsula was a bit rough when we went to pick up the kayak from the handsome Frenchman who ran Awesome Adventures rentals on the beach, so he suggested we start on the lagoon side (a 5 minute walk across the road to the other side of the peninsula).

We slathered on the last of our sunscreen and set about exploring the lagoon side of Placencia. A quieter side, there were properties on either side of us, as many long islands are inhabited in the lagoon. Sorry, no photos until the second half of the afternoon; we were too busy kayaking. 🙂

The water’s edge wherever it is left wild is like what I imagine mangroves to be. Viny roots with big tough leaves bend in and out of the water, and we moved out to the south end and into the open ocean water quite easily.

We pulled our kayak up on the shore at the pier and went for a swim before heading back around to the ocean side to complete our loop.


As we came into shore I realized our mistake in not returning to the lagoon. As I mentioned before, the west shoreline is covered in thick seaweed which makes it less than ideal for swimming, but it also happened to be covered in plastic garbage. Pop bottle and water bottle lids, straws, plastic juice containers and broken pieces of every colour man-made garbage you can imagine. We were told that “it is not normally like this”; apparently a recent flash flood in Guatemala washed all their garbage into their rivers and therefore into the ocean. It made my heart hurt to see this, as I have never seen such litter on such a grand scale, especially in such a beautiful, natural place.

(I took these photos later that day, when the waves weren’t as high and most of the garbage was held against the shore by the seaweed.)

We had an audience as we paddled up to the shoreline as a group of volunteers had just arrived that day to clean up the shoreline. As my mom stepped out of the kayak I realized what was coming and braced myself for the incoming wave. Let me tell you, there was a collective gasp and grimace on all the faces of the volunteers as garbage and seaweed washed up my shirt and across my back, not once, but twice before I could step out of the kayak properly. If that doesn’t make one seriously consider changing their plastic consumption, I’m not sure what else will. Imagining the wildlife affected and how this isn’t even the worst situation that exists in the world, it just makes my heart hurt.

After rinsing off (!) and some lunch, we took some fresh pineapple and made ourselves pina coladas, and headed to the beach at the pier for a final afternoon of swimming and sunning.

Our last treat that afternoon was finally trying Bakerman John’s famous cinnamon buns! Delicious.

When we walked by the “garbaged beach” later that night we saw bags piled and only seaweed along the water’s edge.

Our last dinner was pizza at Chachi’s, and a shot of homemade bitters with the owners! We then got to hang out while 2 of them practiced for a gig later that week. One played the cajon (box drum), and the other, a Charinga; a Peruvian ukulele! It was a perfect way to relax on our last night in this totally chill place.

The flight on the tiny plane to Belize City gave us great departing views of this tropical place.

So long Placencia!

Some fireworks and some beach-time.

The days here fly by and we are definitely seeing progress with the house. However, I seem to take more pictures and have more stories on my days off… 😁

Here are some photos and details about the national holiday and a long weekend camping trip to the coast!

“Bastille Day” brought a show of fireworks to the village and we were invited to another delightful evening at the island home of Helen and Moyed, again with plenty of food and wine and good company.
I baked chocolate hazelnut brownies for dessert. (They were something I hoped would not have to compete with the local boulangerie that people had become accustomed to. And I was relieved when they went over very well! 🙂 )

We were told that every year the lower bridge between Bourpeuil and L’Isle Jourdain is filled with locals and people who come into town for the fireworks. 

While we waited for the fireworks and ate a delicious dinner in the front yard, we could hear his strange music coming from the bridge. 

We ventured out the front gate to see what was going on and discovered a group of bugle players performing a sort of pre-show entertainment in the crowd. 

You may not have considered it before (I certainly didn’t), but it is actually extremely difficult for numerous bugle players to create the same note at the same time as bugles are only ‘tuned’ by the way a player holds their mouth.

One player stood at one end of the bridge and played a tune, and then the group at the other end would echo it back. It was really fun!

The fireworks (or feu d’artifice en français) were set off from both the base and the top of the viaduct, and the water in the Vienne River was so still that night we got to see an incredible double display with the reflection in the water. They were gorgeous and lasted 20 minutes! 

This video gives you an idea of the coolness factor of seeing the fireworks and their reflections at the start of the show.

The next morning my ‘co-workawayer’ Viktor and I took off for the Brittany coast for a long weekend of beachy camping on Isle D’Oléron and Isle De Ré.
We packed up the little van with Corinne’s and Gilles’ bikes, blankets, sheets, and beachwear, and headed for the coast. I drove (stick shift as a right-side driver 😳), with Viktor as navigator. 

After what seemed like endless roundabouts (the true French road way, apparently), we first arrived in La Rochelle and saw the beach and wandered around the Old Town, and then took the viaduct over the water to L’Isle D’Oléron, and towards the Grand Village. 

We stopped for a coffee and some wifi with a view of the ocean, of course!

The Old Town area of La Rochelle.

I was happy to note the giant sign that read “La Ville Des Huitres” as we drove onto the island of Oléron. Oysters (and mussels) are *the* thing to get on the islands as they are farmed all along the shorelines. (You also get amazing Fleur De Sel here, direct from salt farmers). 🙂 Another happy place. 

We arrived at a very busy campground called Les Pins (pine trees) as it was located in the forested lower end of the Oléron island, yet only a ten-minute bike ride to the beach! 

Campgrounds here are even more deluxe than along the East Coast of Canada.

 It seems like the French like to arrive to fully furnished cabins, trailers, and structured tent units with running water and electricity. Some are really beautiful, and clearly big families come and stay for a while here. (There is even a regular schedule of some sort of family activities and/or entertainment every day.)

I spent a little time at the naturally-filtered pool (complete with waterfall!)

Bikes are pretty much essential on these islands not only to go where cars can’t, and due to the limited parking spots available near all the best beaches on the islands, but because the winding roads and endless pathways along the island are perfectly lovely to cruise on two wheels. 😎

An afternoon siesta? I think so!

There were a handful of restaurants just down the street from the campground, a boulangerie, and a little supermarket. It was quite convenient, as I ended up buying a sleeping bag the second day we were there because the nights were colder than I expected (wimp that I am, I should have known better).

Chez moi pour le week-end!


We set up camp in a sandy and shaded campsite (tent for Viktor, van-avec-curtains for me), and made our way over to the beach just as the last of the daytime visitors were leaving. The beach was almost completely empty, aside from a few guys flying a large kite, and so we checked out the water temperature (freezing) and wandered he shoreline, watching the sun sink down towards the water before we headed back to our campsite.

The next day we spent at the beach (La Plage de la Giraudiere). The water was very shallow for quite a distance out, and with the heat and wind, and waves all along the shoreline it was the perfect location for surf lessons. It was fun to watch both kids and adults run and jump onto small surf boards and glide along the shoreline (or slip right off and tumble into the water, which happened much more often). 

It was a packed beach, and actually reminded me of family vacations to Florida when I was younger. Lots of families, and lots of kids.

Every morning there was a market at our campsite, where you could purchase 6 varieties of local oysters 😁, fresh veggies and fruit, and bread. 

Viktor tried his first ever oyster, but wasn’t too keen on it, so I happily had oysters for lunch, while he had the tried-and-true cheese and bread.

Perfection

Friday night at a tapas bar and pizza place called La Choza we caught the most excellent live djs I have ever seen- 5 guys sharing 4 turntables, multiple pieces of effects equipment, and numerous boxes of records, and on top of that there was also a saxophone player who would improvise along brilliantly with the music when he felt like it. 

It was clearly a popular locals spot and was a very surfer/island/party atmosphere. After an excellent pizza dinner I ended up hanging out there until well after midnight watching them skillfully mix sweet music for hours!


Saturday we changed islands and made our way up to the northern tip of Isle De Ré. 

Clearly the more popular/touristy of the two islands, you have to pay a toll of €16 to drive onto the island. (It’s free if you walk or bike over. The bike ride would likely take 20 min over the bridge, and walking would likely be closer to 45, but as the island is almost 30km long we figured a vehicle would be more efficient this trip.)

The beach we spent the day at was idyllic. The sun was hot, the water was perfectly refreshing, and the beach was busy but not packed. The only thing I wished we had brought was a large parasol (as everyone else did), as there was no shade to be found otherwise.
After playing volleyball in the water with a bunch of Francophones, sunning on the beach, swimming and wandering along the shore (and checking out the huge dead jellyfish that had washed up hours earlier)….and possibly turning a bit pink (but not as pink as Viktor!), we searched for a campsite.

After the June road trip  where we never worried about pre-booking campsites, I didn’t have any concern for finding a spot. This was when I learned that this was the start of the summer holidays for not only public schools, but now private schools, and it took us until our third campsite to find an available tenting spot! 

Luckily, our campground was awesome (Camp Du Soleil), near the stunning town of Ars-En-Ré

Complete with restaurant, pool, arcade, and two perfect trees for the hammock we brought, this was our favourite spot to stay.



An evening bike ride over to Ars En Ré was absolute perfection Saturday evening, with the streets looking ready for a movie crew to set up a scene for a romantic French film at any moment. 

Pristine buildings, lavender and hollyhocks lining the cobblestone streets, and nothing but a few pedestrians and cyclists winding their way through the little village that has been named one of the most beautiful villages in all of France.


We came to the town centre and the regal Church of Saint-Etienne, where a boys choir was performing a small concert. If you come during the day you can sometimes climb to the top of the tower and have a great view, but I only learned this after we left. 

This is definitely a place I’d return to!!

I think that will have to do for now. So much to share, but I’m definitely finding it hard to sit still! 🙂

Bahamas 2016; New Providence Revisited!

A return trip to Nassau was in order after our dream of a vacation last March. We booked our stays again with Airbnb: one week again at Sarah and Derek’s, and a second week with Shaun and Christine.

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We arrived to windy and cloudy weather, and a rainstorm that started late in the evening and woke us up with it’s heavy hitting raindrops throughout the night! We woke to cloudy skies and wind, but the smell of the sea and warm breezes just can’t be beat!

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Breakfast on the patio was yet again delicious as always, and we did meet some of the other guests in the house, though there were fewer than the previous year by half!

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Like last year, we made dinner one night for Sarah and Derek: my dad’s famous Caesar salad and my mom’s famous Lemon Meringue Pie! Without an electric mixer, that meringue was truly made with love. Hand whipping egg whites to create meringue takes tenacity and strong wrists! 😀

 

We had our favourite spots we planned to see, but also had a few new locations on our to do list, including an organic farm/market/restaurant, the Primeval Forest, The Island House, sea kayaking, and a sailing cruise. We did however, make sure we touched the ocean every day.

 

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Walking back from Love Beach.

With windy and slightly rainy weather, we booked our exploration to ‘inside’ sights in our first week. We re-visited the National Art Gallery, which was showcasing the life’s work of Brent Malone, a Bahamain artist, and it was a real assortment from sketches to prints to sculpture to paint, from abstract to realism and everything in between. It could have been a collection of different artists, his work was so varied. I think our favourite pieces were his more recent work with Junkanoo as the subject matter. You could hear the drums and cowbells!  🙂

We took the bus most places (#10 and #12 travelled most of the length of West Bay street), but often we chose to walk because the weather was nice enough and we had the time! The funny thing? There are no sidewalks. No one walks on New Providence. They drive or take the bus. (There are very few cyclists, even.) This meant taking your life into your hands when traffic got busy, as there is barely any room on either side of the road for any sort of pedestrian traffic.

Bus drivers overall were very kind. We often noticed they drove out of their way to drop someone off or pick someone up, and no one on the bus seemed to mind. We were often driven off the main road closer to our destination simply because the driver knew where we were headed and said “Well, wouldn’t want to walk that far!” and would drive an extra 5 minutes out of their way. We even had one bus driver offer to take us the extra distance to Jaws Beach (not on the normal bus route, but sometimes alright if you gave the bus driver an extra $5), and then he asked us what time we wanted to be picked up and he came back to get us!

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A very quiet Jaws Beach

Goodfellow farms was amazing! It is owned by a Canadian family and they use Aquaponics to grow their food. They keep Tilapia fish in several giant tanks, and the water is used to fertilize lettuce, cabbage, kale, spinach, tomatoes, strawberries, and I’m sure much more. Then the water, cleaned by the plants growing in it, is recycled in the tilapia tanks.

We had some of the best food on our trip in the restaurant on the grounds there (I don’t normally gush about vegetables, but OH, the salad!!). They also have a small store with specialty foods, and locally made ice cream.

The Primeval Forest was actually ridiculous to get to. We were told we could walk from the organic farm to the entrance, (“about 5 km”), but it turned out these directions were beyond optimistic, and when we asked to confirm the walking route on our map with the folks at the restaurant, they gawked and told us we would need a car for sure, and called us a taxi.

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The forest was fascinating, with very strict instructions to”stay on the steel-reinforced pathway unless you want to chance falling into a sinkhole”. There was also a type of tree there that was supposedly 10 times worse than poison ivy or poison oak, which made our wander through even more trepidatious. With a  $10 entrance fee, it is an interesting way to spend 30-45 minutes seeing the last un-touched area and oldest trees of the Bahamas, but not  a vital must-see.

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It felt like a place Tarzan would be very comfortable in.

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We also checked out the caves– a step off the main road and 5-10 minutes tops to explore. Free, and easy to check out if you are interested in seeing where the pirates liked to hide on the island back in the day.

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A highlight of our trip was definitely the All-Day Sailing Cruise we took with Barefoot Sailing Tours. It was something my mom wanted to book last year but I wasn’t interested. Boy was I glad she convinced me this year!

The weather was perfect for our travels over to Rose Island, with 3 hours of sailing, and 3 hours at the island to swim snorkel and tan, and a bbq lunch on the boat made by the captain himself.

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The water was straight out of a travel magazine, and we couldn’t believe its beauty even as we swam. The snorkelling was fantastic, and we saw everything from (small!) Barracuda to parrot fish to baby squid.

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Our sailboat is on the right!

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We thought that we had planned well with regularly re-applying sunscreen, but we got cooked that day! Happily ‘sail-boat-cooked’. 🙂

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Our second week had calmer weather days, and the temperature jumped and we spent almost every day at the beach. We learned in our first week that no amount of 100% Deet bug spray kept away the no-see-ums (aka sand fleas) that like to hang out in the sand and LOVE to bite us, and keeping off the sand was vital to our happiness. (In fact, we are now educated that we should likely start taking Benadryl several days before our trip to get our immune systems boosted against the allergic reactions we have to the bites.)

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We frequented the beach by Sandyport Resort, where we would make good use of the beach chairs and umbrellas they so generously supply. 🙂 The restaurant there, The Blue Sail, makes excellent pizzas.

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I don’t recall finding this out last year but ALL beaches in the Bahamas are public. There is no such thing as a private beach; the law states that 30m up from the high water mark is public beach on every single one of the 700+ islands. Even the beach at Atlantis is free to the public, whether you are staying at the resort or not (though we hear it is always crowded).

 

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The Island House is a dreamy resort that is not on the beach and it doesn’t matter. Our friend Sarah suggested we go see a movie in their 40-seat theatre on one of the stormier days, and we felt like we had stumbled on a movie set; it was such an out-of-this-world hotel.

It was definitely a ‘happy place’ of ours for the trip, and we saw two movies there and tried out the restaurant Mahogany House for lunch on our last day in the Bahamas.

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Deluxe and comfortable seats, with tables to hold your wine or beer as you watch and leather footstools to be extra comfortable.

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My mother, the model/movie star.

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I could get used to this! 😉

Unless I win the lottery or marry a millionaire, I will never be able to afford to stay here, but I will pay it a day-visit whenever I am in Nassau!

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Speaking of food, we, of course, had to have another freshly made conch salad, this time, complete with a grapefruit Radler beer, at Dino’s. Now, we learned a very important new tip: if we wanted to see our lunch without having to wait 40-80 minutes (the epitome of island time, people, island time!): Call ahead and order in advance. Then when you arrive your order goes to the front of the line (and you wait 15-20 minutes instead of an hour)!

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We also splurged on the insanely classy Sapodilla restaurant, with the most elegant atmosphere (and menu) of our entire vacation.

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Live piano was being played in the lounge throughout our entire dinner, and we were even offered a ride to and from the restaurant when we made our reservation. We were also asked if it was a special occasion (birthday, anniversary, etc) so they could plan accordingly for our arrival.

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They made Caesar salad at the table, and it was just like Dad’s!

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Seriously, go to this restaurant. It is spectacular.

(Expert tip: don’t order water; order Persecco: they cost the same.)

 

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We did revisit the fish fry and Sonja’s bbq Jerk truck, and Twin Brother’s and their fabulous pina colada/daquiri slush on a couple of our evenings, as well. We love our Bahamian food. 🙂

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We spent as much time on or in the water as possible, and were able to rent a kayak and explore the west end of the island via the ocean, and it felt like a private island as we paddled along! It was peaceful and gorgeous!

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It was also cool to learn the names of the creatures that we came across, as our host Shaun was an avid diver and had these great snorkelling cards to identify fish and wildlife in the waters around New Providence.

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Until next time, Nassau… 🙂

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A trip to Mont Saint Michel…

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So this is a brief post (and mostly photos) of our trip out to Mont St Michel last week. I was told that the island is a must-see by several friends, and I was looking forward to spending the night on the island in order to be there after the daytime rush of tourists. The tides at Mont Saint Michel come in and out very quickly when they change and it’s exciting to see when you are out there, so naturally, I looked it up. It turned out there would be absolutely no change between low and high tide while we were on the island. I was slightly disappointed but figured that the water would be in and it would look like any other island. It turned out, the water was completely out, so the island was now surrounded by sand. And that turned out to be amazing.

We took the train from Paris to Rennes and then took a bus to the shuttle at Mont Saint Michel, but it was a beautiful afternoon so we decided to walk along the pathway to he island, which was awesome. It turns out you can rent bikes too, but it’s an easy walk.

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A storm was leaving the area just as we got there, so it made for really exciting skies!

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The view from our hotel room

The view from our hotel room

After dinner and some exploring around the island (the *one* street filled with restaurants and novelty/souvenir shops), we headed down to the ‘beach’ to take pictures. We walked barefoot and there were only a handful of people down there, so it felt like it had cleared out just for us. Aside from the constant cries of seagulls, it was quiet and beautiful! My sister can attest- I was downright giddy I was so happy to be there.

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The next morning we went through the Abbey at the top of the island (oh the stairs…. People with limited mobility or even worse: strollers (!!!) : stay away!!).

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Even by 10:00am we realized how quickly the island gets busy!

The one street. Did I mention there is only one street? I'm not exaggerating. One street.

The one street. Did I mention there is only one street? I’m not exaggerating. One street.

I’ll never forget it. I am SO glad we stayed overnight on the island, and got to see this incredible place. It is a ‘must-see’. 🙂

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