Friday, March 31, 2017

Travellin’ to paradise, past and present

UltraMar docks at Puerto Juarez on the mainland
Living on an island in the Caribbean Sea, there is only one way to get there – by boat. Be it passenger vessel, car ferry or private yacht, we all have to cross the water. Okay, one or two lucky people have small private planes that are permitted to land in the seldom-used, almost-defunct airport. But the rest of us peasants cross by boat; big boats, little boats, private boats or commuter boats.

New boat the Bo Hengy II - Doris Nielsen Nickel photo

Every couple of years we see a new addition to the fleet of passenger ferries bringing people to this little piece of paradise. 

The vessels are getting bigger and bigger to accommodate the increase in visitors. With the newest arrival the Bo Hengy (presumably pronounced Bo Henry) each crossing can transport 408 visitors to Isla Mujeres.

Photo Credit unknown, posted on Recuerdos de Isla Mujeres!
Before the UltraMar started business the only passenger service to the island was provided by Ausencio Magaña and his family members. Their fleet included the La Carmita, a banana-shaped boat that rolled and wallowed in the seas creating havoc with the tender stomachs of landlubbers and tourists. The preferred place for locals to ride was in the stern, well away from any seasick travellers. 

2002 Caribbean Miss
The next Magaña ship was La Novia del Mar and then the popular La Sultana del Mar.  A fourth boat, La Dama Elegante, was equipped with a six foot (2 metres) by two foot (60 cm) glass insert for viewing the sea life. A sunken shrimp boat, the Blanca Beatriz was rescued from near Isla Contoy, and refurbished. Although that vessel was primarily reserved for circumnavigating the island with sightseers.  

In 2002 our first trip to Isla was on the Caribbean Miss owned by the Magaña family.  

This modest craft held maybe forty people and a bit of cargo. I have never been sea-sick, but the combined diesel fuel vapours and the slight rolling motion pushed my tolerance to the limit.  

2005 UltraMar passenger ferry
When we returned in 2005 the first UltraMar catamaran was in service with interior seating for fifty or sixty people.

2009 saw the arrival of a larger catamaran for UltraMar with upper deck seating and a capacity of about 200 passengers. 

Three larger boats holding up to 265 people arrived in 2011 with flashy blue underwater LEDS lighting up the nighttime crossings.

Flashy underwater LEDs on UltraMar boat

Still not enough to deal with the thousands visitors, UltraMar put the Bo Hengy into service this week.  The company didn’t even have time to paint the new ship in the distinctive blue and yellow corporate colours.

This week is spring break for many schools in Canada, USA and Mexico. The lineups will are huge, but with the new larger ship in service hopefully traveling back and forth to the mainland won’t be a problem. Although we typically hide out at our beachfront home during this crazy time of year.

We have sand, sun, and cold beer all within easy reach. No need to leave home.

Hasta Luego
Lynda & Lawrie


Treasure Isla

Treasure Isla is a humorous Caribbean adventure set on Isla Mujeres, a tiny island off the eastern coast of Mexico. Two twenty-something women find themselves in possession of a seemingly authentic treasure map, which leads them on a chaotic search for buried treasure while navigating the dangers of too much tequila, disreputable men, and a killer. And there is a dog, a lovable rescue-mutt.

$2.99 USD  E-book edition available on Amazon

Friday, March 24, 2017

Eating and drinking our way across dog-friendly Argentina

Park pooch at San Rafael Argentina
We spent a week exploring in Argentina, sightseeing and eating our way across the province of Mendoza. There are amazing wineries, fabulous restaurants, and dogs of every size, shape, colour and variety.

Using the Petit Suter Hotel in San Rafael, as our base we investigated the surrounding area. Situated in the semi-arid southern region of Mendoza province, San Rafael has a population of around 170,000 inhabitants. It’s a vibrant community with lots of amenities including several gourmet restaurants. A wide and delicious selection of only Argentinian wine is sold in every corner store. No imports allowed.

Wine, wine and more wine!
While exploring the various communities we saw a well-balanced interaction between the residents and the street dogs. Strays usually stake out their territory by napping in doorways of restaurants, stores and gas stations. 

Many locals stop to give the dogs a bit of food and a pat on the head. The snowy winter months would be harder for the animals but right now the strays are in good condition, with no sign of scrawny moms scavenging for food so that they can feed their babies. This is one of the most dog-friendly countries we have ever experienced.

Gas station dog gets a handout
As mentioned in our previous articles the roads in Argentina are well-maintained, but directional signage is very scarce. It makes for interesting daytrips. 

We’d head out with a destination in mind, only to find ourselves in a completely different hamlet. 

As long as there was flavourful food and tasty drinks at the end of the adventure we were happy.

Plate-sized hamburger

In one instance we headed south-west from San Rafael towards El Nihuil via highway #173 and instead arrived in the town of General Alvear on highway #143 a good bit east of our original destination. That gave us a good laugh while we searched for a local restaurant that was open for lunch on a Saturday. 

Again we stopped at the corner gas station, asking for suggestions. Just a block away was a local eatery serving dinner-plate sized hamburgers and litre bottles of Andes beer. 

The food was tasty and the owners friendly. The street dogs politely waited for handouts.

Another afternoon, Carlos, the owner of the Petit Suter Hotel suggested that we drive twenty kilometers west to the next village Veintecinco de Mayo (25th of May) and have lunch at his favourite restaurant, the Villa Bonita. The route was fairly straightforward enabling us to find the eatery without traversing the Andes in search of the village. 

We enjoyed a hearty meal of meat, stewed and covered with a pastry crust. 

Hi!  Want to share with me?
My body was craving dark green veggies – broccoli, spinach, and asparagus. Lawrie, on the other hand, was as happy as a pig-in-poop with the menu choices of meat, meat and more meat.

I bundled up the left-over beef and carried it back to the gas station dog near our hotel. He was a very happy mutt that day. 

A few days later we were headed back north to Mendoza City, the past week having passed in a blur of food and wine. 

On our way north we veered into the Salentein winery for one last chance at purchasing our favourites. On the off-chance we asked if we could have lunch in the restaurant. We hadn’t thought to make the normally required reservation. 

Salentein Winery lunch.
Fortunately for us the young woman who manages the bar-restaurant remembered us from the previous week. She said she could squeeze us in – yippee!  

Another amazing lunch served with delicious wines and an outstanding view of the snow-capped Andes Mountains.

It was a darn great way to end our adventures.

Hasta Luego from Paradise
Cheers Lynda & Lawrie


How would you locate the hoard of jewels and gold buried on Isla Mujeres?

Treasure Isla is a humorous Caribbean adventure set on Isla Mujeres, a tiny island off the eastern coast of Mexico. Two twenty-something women find themselves in possession of a seemingly authentic treasure map, which leads them on a chaotic search for buried treasure while navigating the dangers of too much tequila, disreputable men, and a killer. And there is a dog, a lovable rescue-mutt.

$2.99 USD Kindle e-books on Amazon

Friday, March 17, 2017

Quirky stuff we learned in wine country, Argentina

Wine Country Argentina
Our recent Argentinian wine-touring adventure started with a bus trip from Buenos Aires to Mendoza City.  

The cost of traveling by bus is considerably cheaper than the two-hour flight and we thought it would be an interesting budget-stretching alternative, plus it would be a great way to see a piece of this enormous country.

Great marketing for CATA
The CATA International bus lines reeled us in with promises of a relaxing and enjoyable ride with reclining bed-like seats, blankets, pillows, breakfast, mid-day snacks, lunch with a glass of wine, and late night snacks. 

The price was half of what it would cost to fly two hours to Mendoza City.

The trip was scheduled to take around fourteen hours on a major freeway, with two drivers alternating every few hours to give them time to rest and recuperate. 

In reality it was a hellacious eighteen-hour journey visiting every small hamlet along the route to load and unload passengers and freight, while our ever-increasing sore butts were stuck in airplane-style seats. Next time we’ll read the Trip Advisor reviews before booking.

CATA - two cookies for meals
The promised on-board amenities such as blankets, pillows and a glass of wine? Nope, nada, nothing.  

The twelve people who had paid for the premium seats (that was us) were served 3 ounces of instant coffee with two cookies at nine in the morning, and another 3 ounces of instant coffee plus two cookies at nine at night. 

Around four in the afternoon the bus stopped long enough for just our small group of premium passengers to hop off and purchase beer and pre-made sandwiches from a local taco stand. 

CATA break glass for emergency escape
At least the on-board toilet worked, although the drivers’ ideas of cleaning the communal toilet was a bit humorous. 

It consisted of sprinkling a Dutch-Cleanser-style cleaning powder on the toilet seat, preventing anyone from actually sitting down. 

We cancelled the remaining portion of the tickets and booked our return airfare as soon as we had internet access in Mendoza. 

So, not a great start to our envisioned luxury ride across the landscape of Argentina, but it got better, a lot better, once we were settled into the Sheraton Hotel in Mendoza City. 

Our Alamo rental car pickup was directly across the street from the hotel.  Easy peasy.  Sign the papers and stash the car in the hotel parkade, and set out on foot to explore the vibrant city of Mendoza. Abundant parks. Numerous lunchtime restaurants. Shops that observe the afternoon closing hours of two until five or six, re-opening again until nine in the evening. Gourmet restaurants that open at nine at night to begin serving the evening meal. Normal bedtime in Argentina is well after midnight.

Vibrant Mendoza City, in Mendoza Valley 
The following day we checked with the experts at the hotel. Where should we start our wine tour? Where’s a good place to stop for a yummy lunch to celebrate my birthday?

The cute young guy tilted his head and smiled at me, “Where are you from?” He asked.

I replied, “We live in Mexico, but before that we lived in the Okanagan Valley in Canada. There are over 350 wineries in the Okanagan, and almost all of them feature award-winning restaurants.”
Gutters to collect rainwater for city trees

Still smiling he said, “In this valley there are over 1500 wineries.” He paused dramatically to make sure we were paying attention before he continued, “of which about 200 will allow visitors, and only 30 have restaurants. Reservations are also mandatory for the restaurants.”

I am pretty sure our mouths dropped open at that point. 1500 wineries and only 30 restaurants! Holy cow! Not what we expected at all.

We had envisioned driving from winery to winery along twisty country roads, popping in here and there to sample the vintages. We’d perhaps purchase a bottle to enjoy later, and maybe one or two to take back to Mexico with us. Have a leisurely lunch, tour some more, and finally reach our next hotel around cocktail time.

Alrighty then, let’s re-group and get a plan. 

Award-winning O. Fournier Winery building
The tour guide booked us into his favourite the O. Fournier Winery, located in San Carlos about a hundred and thirty kilometers south of Mendoza, for a one o’clock reservation. 

That gave us time to explore the valley a bit before our lunch. So off we go armed with a not-quite-to-scale map of the wine region. You know that little sticker on your car mirrors that says – objects may be closer than they appear.  The map was the reverse. Wineries are farther than they appeared on the map. The side-streets and intersections are seldom marked. Clear and abundant signage for the wineries seems to be considered vulgar, tacky. 
Wine bodegas clustered in a village setting

Our favourite Argentinian Malbec wine from the Salentein Winery near Tunuyan, in the Uco Valley, had exactly one sign about a kilometer from the entrance.

In the meantime we wandered here and there through little hamlets looking for the wineries indicated on the map. I am slowly coming around to the idea of a handheld GPS for future excursions. Lawrie’s form of navigating involves tossing the map on the back seat and pointing ‘that a way,’ so I usually take the navigators seat, reading glasses perched on my nose and map in hand.

Inside Salentein Winery distances to other countries
In our helter-skelter route we came across an area of wine bodegas, small stores set up in a village atmosphere. Each bodega represented one or more wineries, offering the public an opportunity to purchase merchandise from the numerous producers that don’t want visitors. 

At this point we were still searching for the illusive Salentein Winery. With a little help from a pleasant young woman managing one of the wine bodegas we eventually found the correct road, albeit from the long way around. 

Salentein is a massive operation, romantically located in the vineyard with a gorgeous backdrop of the snow-capped Andes. We asked at the wine shop if we could taste some of the wines before purchasing.

Lawrie - Salentein Winery entrance
“Certainly. Just go to the restaurant, purchase a glass of what you would like to taste. Then return to the wine shop and buy what you are interested in.”

Alrighty then, that’s another quirky difference between Canadian and Argentinian wineries. Sampling different varietals and vintages is allowed in Canada for a small cover fee, typically applied against your purchase price. 

The very pleasant young woman named Rocia, (English translation is Dew) poured us a delicious Sauvignon Blanc to share.  Then we returned to the wine shop to purchase our favourites.

Amazing lunch at O. Fournier Winery 
About now it was time to head further south to our luncheon reservation.  With a little more experience of driving the Argentinian countryside we managed to find the main highway to San Carlos, buzzing right past the one-and-only sign for O. Fourier Winery.

Stopping at the next gas station we used hand signs and Spanglish to ask for directions, eventually finding our way into the beautiful structure five minutes early. Yeah team!  

Other customers not interested in the view!
Bypassing the offer of a pre-lunch winery tour we were escorted to our reserved table. 

The forty-seat restaurant has an outstanding view of the impressive Andes Mountains, apparently not so entrancing to another couple who spent the entire time accessing messages on their phones.

Lunch at O. Fournier Winery

And our lunch at the O. Fourier Winery, wow!  It was probably the best meal we have ever experienced, six courses of intriguing flavours, beautifully presented and accompanied by different wines. It was an outstanding way to celebrate my birthday with my sweetie.

This blog article is becoming a bit unwieldly in length so we’ll finish recounting our Argentinian Adventure next week.

In the meantime,
Hasta Luego from Paradise
Cheers Lynda & Lawrie


A great beach read - $2.99 USD 

Treasure Isla is a humorous Caribbean adventure set on Isla Mujeres, a tiny island off the eastern coast of Mexico. Two twenty-something women find themselves in possession of a seemingly authentic treasure map, which leads them on a chaotic search for buried treasure while navigating the dangers of too much tequila, disreputable men, and a killer. And there is a dog, a lovable rescue-mutt. 

Only available on Kindle E-Books.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Celebrating our birthdays in Argentina

Beautiful sculptures in city parks
It’s something we promised ourselves several years ago, when we moved to Mexico, travel in South America because it was now so much closer to us.  Sure, it’s closer, but some of the countries are still a long way away. On Saturday February 18th we flew eight hours south to Santiago Chile, then another two hours east to Buenos Aires Argentina. In the end it was well worth the time. 
Buenos Aires is an old and glamorous European-style city with a population of twelve million in its greater metropolitan area. 

The ancient buildings are amazing, the public parks plentiful and huge, and the residents are very cosmopolitan and friendly. 

Ancient rubber trees in city parks

We stayed in the upscale Recoleta neighbourhood with its fashionable restaurants, designer shops and model-thin residents. Not a place for anyone bigger than a size two to shop for clothes. Not our size. Not our style.  Lawrie and I haunted the outdoor shopping plazas for two days, purchasing only two casual t-shirts.

The best way to see the inner city of Buenos Aires is by the hop-on, hop-off tour buses that operate from nine in the morning until six in the evening.
Boca neighbourhood - interesting but becoming touristy
The cost is about $30.00 USD per person, to use the buses for a day. The traffic in centro is thick, at times coming to a standstill with the congestion of commuters, buses, delivery trucks and motorcycle riders filling every available space on the roadway. We have driven in a lot of big cities around the world, but we had to admit we were happy to let the taxi or bus drivers do the hard work, giving us time to enjoy the sights.

Recoleta Cemetery

One of the most famous sights is the Recoleta Cemetery located in the neighbourhood where we stayed. 

It covers fourteen acres of land, and has approximately 6300 large tombs, some as big as a small house, holding the remains of the rich and famous of Argentina including several past presidents, the granddaughter of Napoleon, and Nobel Prize winners. 

Recoleta Cemetery has been designated as one of the ten most beautiful cemeteries in the world.  Who knew there is a world-wide rating system for cemeteries?

Statue holding up rubber tree branch
Some of the interesting differences that we noticed between Mexico and Argentina.
The Argentinian cities are very clean, and relatively quiet. They are also big into recycling with one communal container in each block for cardboard and metal. 

We rented a car and visited several places during our three-week adventure and rarely did we see vehicles that weren’t well-maintained including functioning mufflers. Wow, what a treat compared to the collection of barely-held-together-beaters that are the norm in Mexico.  We kind of missed the heart-attack inducing vehicle back-fires common on Isla.  

In Mexico we have topes, the marked or sometimes unmarked speed bumps, in towns and cities. 

In Argentina, they have reverse-topes, dropping the front wheels into a shallow ditch. We didn’t see a lot of warning signage but soon learned in small villages to keep watch for the neck-jarring drop.

Centro - park in Buenos Aires
The main Argentinian highways are very easy to drive on with one minor exception – the lack of signage. Usually we would spot our turn-off, after we had passed the exit point, necessitating a turn back at the next over-pass, and a bit of scrambling through the narrow one-way streets to get to where we were headed. We completely missed one shopping district three times, deciding in the end that perhaps we really didn’t want to go there after all, and found a tasty restaurant to enjoy a leisurely lunch.

One of the many pampered pooches in Buenos Aires Argentina 
Most Argentinian city dogs are well-fed pampered pets, wearing collars or harnesses and are walked on leashes.  Dogs are welcome in every park, and every pet owner picks up the doggy-doo-do.  There are doggy-day-care services that walk the pooches sometimes ten at a time through the parks before returning to a large penned in area where the canines can play and interact with each other.

Meat, meat, and more meat!

The food in Argentina was amazing, but not exactly what we had expected. Yes there was beef, and more beef, with a side-order of beef that was standard in every restaurant, with nary a vegetable in sight. But since it was settled by the Spanish back in the 1600’s we expected more spice, more heat to the food. Instead it had a very northern European touch, interesting but subtle flavours and not spicy.

And one very perplexing Argentinian habit, the placement of a plastic bottle on top of a car’s roof. We spotted this in a number of places before Lawrie finally asked someone what it meant. 

It’s a For Sale sign for the car. Ingenious!

This car is For Sale - look at the plastic bottle on the roof
Sorry this week’s blog post was late – we arrived home late Wednesday afternoon after a twenty-four hour trip. 

First we had a flight from Buenos Aires to Santiago Chile, then an eight-hour flight to Mexico City, then another flight to Cancun, a bus trip into centro, a taxi, the Ultramar passenger boat, and a final taxi, collapsing inside our front door grateful to be home but happy we experienced Argentina.

Next week’s blog: Wine Country Argentina! Yum!
Cheers Lawrie and Lynda 

Birthday lunch at O. Fournier Winery Argentina

Get your copy today - a fun adventure story set on Isla Mujeres
$2.99 USD on Amazon e-books. 

Treasure Isla is a humorous Caribbean adventure set on Isla Mujeres, a tiny island off the eastern coast of Mexico. Two twenty-something women find themselves in possession of a seemingly authentic treasure map, which leads them on a chaotic search for buried treasure while navigating the dangers of too much tequila, disreputable men, and a killer. And there is a dog, a lovable rescue-mutt.