Saturday, 24 November 2018

Notes from the Road: Crossing Canada (Part 3) - Central Canada

The Road Home, New Brunswick to Trois Rivieres, QC
Let's see, where were we?  Ah, yes, just leaving New Brunswick.  Oh how I loved Small Town, Quebec!  Sometimes Broader Canada has little more than disparaging remarks for Quebec's passion for protecting its language and culture but I have a different perspective. Admittedly, travelling through this lovely province can be a bit daunting when one only speaks English. According to Stats Canada, while French may be the mother tongue of only 22% of Canadians, it is the first language for about 80% of Quebecois and that number is increasing! Indeed, as we continued to explore, we found the lack of English speaking Francophones to be the norm.  Initially, it was a bit disconcerting to find ourselves a minority in our own country.  We had to consciously remind ourselves that Canada is, after all, a bilingual country; perhaps we have has much responsibility to be able to converse in French as Francophones in English.  I don't know why but, more than anything, we were caught unaware.  Once we checked our attitude and moved through Quebec in the same manner we might adopt while visiting any other place in the world where English is not the first language, we did perfectly fine. A friendly face and the desire to communicate trumps the need for a mutual language. 

One of the Many Dairies we Passed Along the Saint Laurence
What I found most endearing was that this Province truly embraces the concept of shopping local.  I remember one little shopping expedition, in particular, that exemplified the concept.  We were in a town of perhaps 5,000 population, with a single main street.  I entered a market only to find that most of what it carried was produce related. While I made my purchases, I inquired where I might find the other sundry items I was looking for and was directed to a second market about a block down the street.  Here I found all of the additional items on my list but not before I took note of how complementary these two stores were.  There was very little overlap except in essential items.  Not only did the two businesses offer little competition toward the other; much of the inventory was also produced within the Province.  I liked that.  I liked that a lot!

There is nothing new about the increasing demand for local produce throughout Canada; the big story is the life these markets breathe into Quebec's small farms. Here, the farm-to-table experience is not only alive and well, but thriving.  Perhaps one of the most successful examples is market gardener Jean-Martin Fortier who freely shares the tricks of his trade.  We can all learn from this gentleman!

Originally erected in 1739, the Aulnaies Mill was fully restored in 1975.  
If you have the time to stay away from the major freeways and follow along the very scenic Saint Lawrence, you will also experience an area steeped in history. Take Saint-Roch-de-Aulnaies,a heritage and natural municipality and one of the oldest seigniories of the Cote-du-Sud region.  The French-inspired architecture includes a stone church (1854), small procession chapel (1792) and flour mill (1739).  Today this mill produces 11 types of organic flour (an annual production of 100 tons) with the same mechanism of the XIX century and all available in its very own bakery! It doesn't get much more local than that! Tours of the mill and its 7 hectare grounds will transport you back to in time by staff dressed in period costume and fully immersed in their respective roles.

The mill grounds today

You certainly won't want to miss the gift shop. . . or maybe you will. . . of all the stops we made along the way, this is where I spent the most amount money, coming away with a hand woven cotton coverlet for our bed.  Now that winter is upon us, I can't tell you how much we love snuggling in under it!

Trois Rivieres to Tobermory

We crossed the Saint Lawrence at Trois Revieres and into Ontario at Hawkesbury, on the south shore of the Ottawa River. From here, we meandered our way through Alexandria, Chesterville and Winchester, until we found ourselves in Merrickville.  This quaint little village is one of several along the Rideau Canal, itself a UNESCO World Heritage site.  

The Operation of the Locks on the Rideau Canal, Merrickville, ON

With its main street lined by gift shops, antique stores and boutiques housed in historic sandstone buildings your biggest challenge will be finding enough time to explore every nook and cranny that calls out to you.  If you don't feel like shopping, check out the Blockhouse Museum, or wonder across the bridge to the Merrickville Industrial Ruins on Pig Island. The Blockhouse, with it's metre-thick walls, was constructed as part of the canal defense system and is the second largest remaining in Canada.  

Merickville Industrial Ruins

Glen Allen Park, Days Gone By
It wasn't long before we found ourselves camped for the night on Crowe Lake, in the district of Marmora and Lake.  I admit, I was more than a little curious about this community.  It was the childhood home of a good friend of mine who had anything but a happy upbringing.  After many years away, her initial return brought with it pain and sadness and yet, she still remarks on the physical beauty of the area. Originally a mining town and lumbering community, the big attraction today is the legacy of the Marmora Open Pit Mine, being a man-made lake, a full 75 acres in area with depths of more than 600' and filled with clear blue spring water.

The View hasn't Changed Much at Glen Allen Park

Travelling west on the Highway 7, we were poking around in a wee little shop in Omemee, now park of the City of Kawartha Lakes.  At one time a thriving shipping point for timber and grain, Omemee's more recent claim to fame is that it is also singer/songwriter Neil Young's childhood home and the town in North Ontario as it was described in the lyrics of "Helpless".  There's even a Youngtown Rock and Roll Museum!
Neil Young (top row, 3rd from the left) 1951-52 Class Photo

Memorabilia Proudly Displayed in a Local Craft Store
In fact, we were told by the owner of the Butternut Folk Art Store (an ardent fan of Mr. Young) that Neil lends his name to help the community out in any way he can and visits Omemee regularly with his brother who remains in nearby Peterborough.  Last year, he returned to perform a solo acoustic 'Home Town' concert.

By this time, and after more than 4 weeks on the road, one of us was getting a little antsy to be getting home.  While the original plan was to explore Southern Ontario, visit family, experience the Mennonite community of St. Jacobs and check out Stratford and Dashwood (birthplace of my great grandmother and grandmother, respectively) we decided perhaps the area deserved more time than we could give it on this trip.  Perhaps it's a destination better flown into where we can spend a week.  We skirted around Lake Simcoe and made our way toward Owen Sound and the Tobermory Ferry.  

Wireton, home of Albino Groundhog and  Weather Forecaster Wiarton Willie
Not only is this route incredibly scenic, it also shaves off several hours of driving around Georgian Bay where the Parry Sound forest fire had only recently been brought under control after closing the Trans Canada highway for several days.

North Manitoulin to Thunder Bay, ON

Bruce Mines, ON
The route gives one a view of Manitoulin Island not soon forgotten.  We hugged the north shoreline of Lake Huron, through Algoma Mills and Bruce Mines, Sault Ste. Marie and the stunningly beautiful Batchwana Bay before finding ourselves in Wawa, Home of the Goose. 

Wawa, ON Canada Goose
One of the most photographed landmarks in North America, this 2,700KG, 8.5m tall Canada Goose has been greeting passersby since 1963. By the way, this is actually goose #3, fittingly erected on Canada's birthday in 2017.  

But that wasn't the only thing in Wawa that caught our attention.  We were also pretty impressed by a very Canadian albeit very quaint Canadian Tire! 

Canadian Tire, Wawa, ON
On we went, through Marathon, Rossport, Nipigon and Thunder Bay, along the northern shoreline of the great Lake Superior.  Since we travelled Highway 17 heading east, and knowing how I hate to travel the same road twice, we headed for Highway 11, and Fort Frances and International Falls, on the Canada/US Border.

Thunder Bay, ON to Deloraine, MB
Did I tell you, Ontario is really big!  That's not a criticism, but I have to say, it was about this time in our trip that the road home was beginning to feel very long, even for me!  It didn't help that the weather turned cloudy and overcast and winds buffeting our wee Winnie Drop behind my SUV did anything but instill confidence in my usually self-assured driving ability.  I never thought I would say this but there really wasn't that much to see along this part of our journey.  In fact, we suffered a bit of angst when we realized the number of service stations between Thunder Bay and Fort Frances is, indeed minimal. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder and even a bit of spray paint on a derelict building holds a certain allure, don't you think?

Art is in the Eye of the Beholder
We had already made the decision that we were not going to cross into the US.  Just west of Fort Frances, Highway 71 took us north, along the east side of Lake of the Woods.  It's easy to see the attraction this rugged, largely wilderness part of the Canadian Shield holds for so very many.   For me, it's sometimes hard to fathom exactly how big Lake Superior really is; it is indeed, much akin to a sea.  With approximately 550 wrecks (including the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald), Whitefish Point has been called the graveyard of Lake Superior.  The Light Station, established in 1849 is the oldest operating and arguably the most important light on Lake Superior. 

In case you're wondering just how big Lake Superior is, wrap your head around this: It's 563 km long and 258 km at it's widest point, with depths up to 406 metres.  It's watershed includes approximately 200 rivers.  Like I said:  BIG!

I'll let that last bit of geography sink in and end this as we are soon to enter the last leg of our journey home.  Until then. . .


Friday, 2 November 2018

Notes from the Road: Crossing Canada, Part 2 - the Journey Home (Maritimes)

Halifax NS to Saint-Quentin, NB
Summerville, NS
As I mentioned in the first installment of Notes from the Road, our cross-country trek to Nova Scotia had a purpose.  While the original plan was to introduce my father-in-law, Frank, to his granddaughter dog, Quinn, we ultimately congregated with family at a small cemetery in his birthplace of Lower  Burlington, near the Bay of Fundy, to inter his ashes.  As we have been returning to Nova Scotia annually for many years, we have had ample opportunity to explore this glorious province  during every season. I promise you, there is no place prettier than Nova Scotia in summer, unless it's Nova Scotia in fall.  Of course, we were too early for the fall colors but that didn't stop us from visiting some of our favourite places and we are still in awe over the natural beauty of this part of Canada.  Take, for example, the view from our friends' deck.  Every morning, this is what they look at; if they want to change it up a bit they simply walk over to the neighbours' for a completely different  but equally breathtaking image.

Nine-Mile River, NS
On the 'downriver' side of Lock 4, Fletcher's Lake
One of the first places I fell in love with in Nova Scotia, was the locks in Fall River.  Located between Lakes Thomas and Fletcher, a few km outside of Halifax, the remains of Lock #4 are clearly visible from the canal banks.  The Shubenacadie Canal Waterway was constructed during the early 19th century.  Hosting 6 locks, the Waterway negated the need for the major portages undertaken by the Mi'kmaq, once the sole users of the natural waterway stretching from Dartmouth Cove, on the Atlantic Ocean, to the Minas Basin on the Bay of Fundy, some 114 km.

Old Dr. Charlie Hines Home, Bay of Fundy
Frank grew up near the Bay of Fundy and, when he returned some years back, this became the view that greeted him.  Originally inhabited by the Mi'kmaq, Acadians arrived to the area around 1685, only to be deported in 1755 by the English who settled in 1750.  The Planters came to Hants County in 1760, from New England.  Shipbuilding became the prominent industry  during 1840-1890.   As I understand it, this home was originally constructed by one of the master builders.  

Animaland RV Park 
After our goodbyes to family and friends, we made our way to Sussex, NB.  Along Route 114, there stands a larger-than-life sized statue of a broken down race horse, the only part of Animaland Resort visible from the road.  Originating in the early 1960s, the RV park is filled with myriad giant concrete animals, including an elephant, snail, giraffe, turtles, and more.  The work of Winston Bronnum who reportedly would stay up through all hours of the night carving wooden animals in his studio, for the next 30 years, Bronnum put his talent to work building giant concrete animals. Located adjacent the Timberland Motel and Restaurant, Bronnum charged tourists to watch him work, in an effort to support his theme park where he also kept deer, rabbits, chickens and, at one point, a lobster tank.  Closed for many years, the RV Park has recently reopened.  Amenities are limited and the facility is in need of some tender loving care but the food and service at the Timberland is good and where else would we find such an emaciated creature as a star attraction?

Hopewell Rocks, NB

Being intimately familiar with Nova Scotia's side of the Bay of Fundy, known for the highest tides in the world, we thought we had seen it all.  We were wrong.  I don't think we anticipated the beauty the same Bay would give us from the other side.  One of New Brunswick's top tourist attractions from mid-May to mid-October, Hopewell Rocks Park is well worth a visit.  When the tide is in, the sandstone formations carved out of the rock, make for an intriguing landscape.  When the tide is out, not only can you wander about the Rocks on the ocean floor, there is 2 km of beach to explore.  
While indeed picturesque, the tide has a way of sneaking in at alarming speed.  There are many stories of experienced men collecting dulse with tractor and wagon who left it too late to make shore. 

Low Tide
If you choose to spend some time in the area, perhaps to witness the Rocks at both high and low tide, be sure you check out the picturesque community of Alma.  You might even want to take a slight detour to experience the spectacular views of Cape Enrage and it's 140 year old lighthouse via zipline!

Acadian Colors Proudly Displayed
New Brunswick is Canada's truly bilingual province.  As one might imagine, the closer you get to Miramichi, heading toward the Acadian Peninsula, evidence of a strongly francophone community continues to mount.  National Acadian Days is held the 15th of August each year, an occasion where homes, businesses, entire communities dress in  blue, white, red and yellow, the traditional Acadian colors.  Festivities abound in celebration of the Acadian heritage and culture.  If you time it right, you can even take part in a Tintamarre, a parade filled with a cacophony of noise made with improvised instruments, including pots, pans, spoons; everything but the kitchen sink! 
Point Wolfe Bridge, one of two Covered Bridges In the Bay of Fundy National Park
and the only bridges in NB to be Painted Red

We loved the Acadian Peninsula, including Shippagan, a charming seaside town nestled between Chaleur Bay and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  We were so taken, in fact, that we decided to spend the night in Camping Shippagan and, while we stayed in some very scenic spots along the way, this one holds the award as being one of the nicest.  The facilities are clean, well maintained and plentiful, the campsites spacious, and while many afford a sea view, all have easy access to trails and boardwalks for an evening stroll.  We were told by one family that they waited for several years just to get the right spot next to the water.  Yes, it's that popular!

"Les Pecheurs -- The Fishermen"
Originally a Wood  Sculpture Created by Artist Claude Roussell,
the Community Eventually Raised Funds  to Turn the
Work into a Stone Monument. 
While no one can dispell the beauty of the Maritimes, they are also steeped in sadness evidenced in the tributes to those lost at sea.  One example is the1959 Escuminac Hurricane is said to have been the worst storm in 100 years which wreaked havoc throughout the Maritimes.  It produced 15 m high waves in open water, destroying 1/3 of the salmon boats in Miramichi.  A total of 35 people were killed across Maritimes, leaving in its wake 24 widows and 84 children without fathers. There began the New Brunswick Fishermen's Disaster Fund, created to assist the families.
While we were tempted to try to squeeze in the Gaspe Peninsula of Quebec, we knew we couldn't do it justice. It, along with Labrador, must wait for another day.  That day will come.  I don't know when, but I do know it will.

To that end,once again, we turned westward, toward Saint-Quintin, Saint-Leonard, and the Quebec/New Brunswick Border.

Stay tuned for more adventures in further Notes from the Road.


Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Notes from the Road: Crossing Canada, Part 1

crossing the Prairies, the first leg of our journey

It was a brilliantly sunny day as the three of us began our trek from Central Alberta, to the Bay of Fundy.  A year ago, we concocted a plan to introduce my father-in-law, Frank, to who he lovingly referred to as his 'grand-daughter-dog'.  Suffice to say, Frank was a dog man.  Over the years, the family had dogs but the ones that stand out in their field belonged to Frank.  And, while we had many cats over the years, the acquisition of our first dog, Quinn, held a special interest for Frank.  If we missed making our regular telephone call, the phone would ring; Frank asking how his grad-daughter-dog was. As with other grandchildren, he even had Quinn's photo displayed in a place of honor -- on the fridge.  But the introduction was not to be; Frank slipped away from us early one morning, this past March.

Our rig, Wander Woman and the Black Beast

Although taking Quinn to meet her grandfather was a good excuse for a road trip, in truth, I'm always up for a road trip. . . and the longer, the better!  In preparation, we sold our 5th wheel and downsized to a Winnie Drop that could be comfortably pulled with our SUV and I would be comfortable pulling.  Fondly dubbed Wander Woman, we managed a few minor interior alterations to increase it's livability, and we were off. Our goal was to make pretty good time crossing the country, spend about a week in Nova Scotia, and then meander our way back home.  

Did I happen to mention that Eric is not one for long-distance hauls? I have often said that this has to do with our respective upbringings.  Whereas my parents often roused us three kids out of bed early on any given Sunday, simply to hit the road and put 300 miles behind us, Eric's family drove 40 miles and got a motel for the night.  In my world, as long as there was some sign of humanity, we couldn't possibly be lost.  Eric was taught never to leave home without a compass and if you haven't been on that particular road before, you probably were, indeed lost!  My father began teaching us the value of landmarking(1)  while we were very young.  He often asked us to give him directions home or to someone's house that we didn't often frequent. He instilled in each of us a sense of adventure and to this day, all his children are only too happy to head out on a drive, be it short or long.  If it is a path we haven't been down before, so much the better!  We still joke of the dismay that mother's face often display when she realized that a lack of signage and poor road conditions was, once again, accepted as an open invitation to explore the Great Unknown! 

First night behind the Walmart, Kindersley, Saskatchewan
As you may have surmised, Eric and I are not 100% compatible when it comes to travel and we continue to work on the fine art of compromise.  In this scenario, his compromise was to actually agree to travel across Canada with a dog whilst living in an RV.  My compromise was to share equally in driving and RV responsibilities and to let him out of the vehicle more often that simply when one of us had to pee.  

The original plan was to stay in small municipal campgrounds the likes of which there are many across the Prairie Provinces.  We are both very fond of Rural Canada and love nothing better than to stumble on some wee community where the one single store is its focal point.  We also weren't adverse to staying in Walmart parking lots, providing it was allowed and we felt safe. In fact, when we inquired on our very first night on the road, it was suggested we park on the side of the Walmart where we shared a nice lawn, open fields and the companionship of another family and a local trucker.  What we wanted to avoid were the large luxury campgrounds filled to the brim with swimming pools, restaurants, and other amenities we had no intention of using.  And did a mention, we are rural people who prefer wide open spaces.  We quickly learned that space was key to Quinn's happiness as well.

Our days routinely began around 7am, when Quinn would get her scratch on, her not-so-subtle way of telling us that the day was upon us and it was time to get a move on.  While one of us took her for a walk and a bathroom break, the other would tuck away bedding, start breakfast -- hers and ours.  Indeed, we were easily on the road by 9 am.  Throughout the day we would stop at any place that took our fancy but two primary reasons stand out.  First, we had not previously travelled with Quinn so we weren't sure what her needs would be.  To that end, we stopped every couple of hours to offer her the opportunity to stretch her legs and, of course, we all have need of  biological breaks.  The Prairie Provinces are loaded with isolated ball diamonds, community halls, day use parks, and cemeteries, most of which offered amenities appropriate for human needs as well as canine. The other draw was to feed Eric's picking hobby.  We rarely passed a garage sale, flee market or second hand store without stopping in to see what treasures were offered.  While I would sometimes aimlessly pick over the offerings, I am generally of the opinion that I have enough stuff of my own to dispose of and don't need anyone else's.  This attitude left Quinn and me to wonder off for a stroll but I also managed to work my way through several books.

Winnipeg, Manitoba to Nipigon, Ontario
the geographic centre of Canada, just outside of Winnipeg, Manitoba
Our route across the Prairies took us through communities the likes of Hanna, Kindersley, Souris and Claude to Kenora where one must choose the route along Highway 17 or Highways 71 and 11, before returning to Highway 17.  We made our way through Dryden and Ignace to Thunder Bay and Nipigon.  From there, we had another option; to stay on Highway 17 through Marathon, or follow Highway 11 North, through Long Lake and Kapuskasing to North Bay.  For me, the choice was an easy one; I have never been to Kapaskasing.  

Nipigon to Haliburton, Ontario
The name itself fascinates me but I have yet to discover its roots. Originally settled in 1907, when it was known as MacPherson Station and established as a railway water stop, it served as a base during the construction of the National Transcontinental Railway.  During WWI, the Canadian government interned thousands of people who immigrated to Canada from Austro-Hungary.  Most were poor, unemployed single men, some even Canadian  born.  Prisoners were employed in the construction of buildings and the clearing of land for an experimental farm to determine whether farming was indeed viable in the Clay Belt.  The remote location acted as security as those who did attempt escape were often forced by endless muskeg, clouds of mosquitoes and frigid winter temperatures to return.  My interest in land use planning was further fueled when I discovered the 1922 plan of subdivision incorporated elements of the 'Garden City' and 'City Beautiful' movements as well as the American 'Neighbourhood Units" concepts. 

historical plaque
Admittedly, this history came as a bit of a surprise. As we toured around the community looking for a place to call home for the night, we came across three schools, all of which were Francophone, with little evidence of the vast number of Hungarians that once resided in here.  In fact, about 70% of the community speaks French as a first language. 

Lake Bernard Park, Bernard Lake, ON
From Kapuskasing, we turned southeast, with the plan to make camp somewhere in the vicinity of North Bay.  It was here that we discovered that not all small communities offered overnight accommodation in the same way that the Prairies did.  In fact, we were hard pressed to find accommodation in this area until we were given the name of a very well established campground, located some 30 km. distance.  Admittedly, it took a bit of looking to find it as it was several km. down a dirt road which our trusty Garmin GPS insisted did not exist!  

Besides, picking, Eric's other great love is his Corvette (Ginger).  He shares this enthusiasm with a great many others across our country and, through the Canadian Corvette Forum, he has developed friendships with a few of the members, including a fellow from Carnarvon.  Murray and his wife, Wendy welcomed us into their home, showed us some of their beautiful community, and offered suggestions as how best to reach our next stop.  We swapped a few stories, including some banter about our slow-poke travel style before heading out the following morning.  No doubt, we got a snicker out of Murray when a few hours later he discovered us in a parking lot only a few miles down the road.  What can I say; we stopped to pick up a few items and got sidetracked again.

Quinn soaking up the love
Russell, a small community southeast of Ottawa, was our next stop.  While Kelly and Derek certainly made us feel welcome, it was obvious they were ecstatic to host Quinn.  We were barely in the door when Quinn discovered a bed just for her. Derek ran to fill a water bowl for her in the 30C+ heat.  Quite literally, Quinn had it made in the shade!  You see, they lost their own beloved Akira earlier this year and they clearly missed her company.  In fact, Quinn came home with one of Akira's old toys which still remains a favourite.

Again, we were given great advice on how best to cross the St. Lawrence Seaway while avoiding the bigger cities.  While many are quite adept at maneuvering down major thoroughfares and through urban centres, we were making a conscious effort to explore small towns and rural communities.  
We crossed the St. Lawrence at Cornwall and bypassed Montreal and Quebec City

We hugged the shoreline of the St. Lawrence, travelling through Sorel-Tracy, Sainte Croix and Montmagny before turning southeast at Saint-Alexandre-de-Kamouraska (isn't that a mouthful!) for the New Brunswick Border, near Edmundston, and to Sussex, via Fredericton.  

While we didn't spend time there on this trip, Freddy-town, as it is often lovingly referred to, is a lovely university town and home to historic Kings Landing.  An easy place to while away the day, Kings Landing is a 120 ha. museum housing 70 historic buildings.  You will be greeted by characters in full costume, going about the daily life in a village dating back to the American Revolution. When we visited the women were busy in the kitchen making preserves for the upcoming winter, and boiling wool from the fall sheering to prepare it for carding and spinning.  The men were throwing up the last of the harvest and working at the flour mill the coopery.  Trust me, there is something of interest for everyone.

Water Mill at Kings Landing, Fredericton, NB
Welcome to Nova Scotia, my second home
On we went to our final destination in Nine Mile River, Nova Scotia.  Again, we were fortunate to be given space in the yard of good friends.  Here, Quinn was finally able to enjoy a bit of freedom as they have a large yard without any dog neighbours nearby to entice her 'dark' side.   Not only was Quinn given the run of their house, our friends were willing sitters, which allowed us an opportunity to inter Eric's father's ashes and spend time with family before making our way back west.  And, once again, Quinn came home with a few new toys and a leash, left behind by a very well-loved Badger their own fur-baby who also passed this year.

A final family photo taken at the gravesite of grandfather Lewis Sanford
where ashes of parents Lorna and Frank are also interred.

We have been making this trip to the East Coast for many years.  As I mentioned, our original intent was to share our beautiful Quinn with Grandfather Frank, but that was not to be.  While travelling with a dog can be a bit of a hindrance, I don't think either one of us found it to be.  For us, Quinn made our trip decidedly different, and for that we are grateful.  She alleviated some of our sadness that naturally acompanies final goodbyes.  She distracted us from the very reason we were making this journey, which allowed us to fully embrace elements that were not focused on Frank.  While it's true, we might not make such a journey with her again, we are neither of us sorry that she accompanied us and yes, we are even grateful.  Dogs are such joyful creatures, bringing love and happiness to their people, not to mention, the last people that would ever want us to be sad are those who have loved us as no other; our parents.

And with that, we began the journey home. Stay tuned for Notes from the Road:  Crossing Canada, Part 2.


(1) an object or feature of a landscape or town that is easily seen and recognized from a distance, especially one that enables someone to establish their location.

Monday, 26 February 2018

Out and About Playas del Coco, Costa Rica

Playas del Coco
We recently returned from our very first visit to Costa Rica .  We only explored Playas del Coco, fondly dubbed Coco, Guanacaste Province and surrounding area.  Our three weeks gave us time to look around and get a feel for the community but, in our opinion,  is not enough time to explore the country in the broader sense. Whenever we travel, our goal is to make a connection with the people we come across, with most of our efforts directed toward the local population.  In this way, we feel we come home with a better understanding of the culture we are visiting.

Bahia Coco
We chose Coco for a number of reasons.  First, you simply can't beat the weather.  Guanacaste Province is known for being sunny and warm year-round.  There is little to no rain from December to April and occasional afternoon rains during the wet season (May to September).  While that might not sound like much, it is during the rainy season that rivers run high and roads turn to mud, making travel throughout the country a much bigger challenge.  October 2017's Tropical Storm Nate wreaked havoc on area to the extent that many roads were impassable to all but four-wheel drive vehicles and horses.  Indeed, we visited a local farm a considerable distance from any waterbody which was under more than 1.5m (5)' of water during that time; and, if surging waters aren't enough to deter, consider crocodiles that might be roaming after the overflow! 

Playa Hermosa
Second, We understood that much of Costa Rica's Pacific
Coast has been developed for tourism. We tend to migrate toward communities where we can stay comfortably but still experience the local culture. Coco was suggested multiple times as a community that provided all the resources a tourist might look for, but without being over-developed.  While there is certainly a myriad of options for accommodation, there is limited choice in terms of all-inclusive and high-end resort communities, which suits us just fine.

Local 'sabanero' (cowboy) bull riders
Third, Guanacasta Province is known for its beaches and biodiversity and, lastly, the area is easily accessible by air and linked to any number of parks and cities by road.

Getting to Coco can be a little time consuming.  While Westjet offers a direct flight from Calgary, AB to Liberia for top dollar, other airlines  route through Toronto or USA destinations such as Houston.  Most Canadians are routed through Toronto.  It makes for a long day but we have travelled to Australia and that makes pretty much every other trip a hop, skip and a jump, by comparison.

Before leaving Alberta, we chose Maleku Tours to shuttle  us from the airport to our accommodation. Upon arrival at Liberia airport, Christopher was waiting for us and shortly after leaving the airport, handed me his phone to receive a personal greeting from Eugenia, the representative I connected with via email, prior to our arrival. Christopher helped us with banking and groceries, and shared his knowledge of his country and the local area. He never left our sides until we were safely at the door of our condo unit.  We used Maleku for all of our transportation needs, eventually meeting Eugenia, husband Geiner, brother Oscar, and sister-in-law Daniella.  The personalized service we received is second to none.  For dental appointments in Liberia we were not simply deposited at the door but, rather, escorted to receptions where arrangements were made for our retrieval upon completion.  Whenever we had a few minutes, we did a drive-by of local sites, always accompanied by tidbits of information about the community, the country, and the culture.  

Maleku is neither the cheapest or the most expensive but we got excellent value and always found our driver waiting for us (and we're always early!)  You can save a bit by paying with cash, be it in Colones or US dollars, which is preferred over credit cards by many businesses. From the moment we met Maleku Tours we knew we were always in good hands and, in case you're wondering, all our drivers were completely bilingual.

While it was suggested that a rental vehicle is a must, we didn't meet anyone who rented one for more than a few days here and there.  If you just want to putz around town, you can also rent golf carts, but the community is quite walkable and cabs are inexpensive.

Playas del Coco, Guanacaste Province map

Located approximately 32km (20mi) from Liberia, with a population of about 40,000, Playas del Coco is one of the oldest beach communities in Guanacaste Province and, we soon discovered, one of the fastest growing.  We met many Canadians who visited annually who were adamant that prices have increased dramatically over the past five years, blaming the introduction of a high-end resort to the area. Local salaries are about $1,000/mo CAD after taxes.  While food and lodging are somewhat less expensive than in Canada, you can still expect to pay $65 for a pair of Levis and $1.37/litre for gasoline.  

Evening Stroll Along Playa Coco
Main street is primarily restaurants and shops while the beach features a winding promenade frequented by the local Costa Rican families and tourists alike.  The water in this area tends to be calmer than the beach further east; while great for strolling it has a considerable undertow and was much less popular for swimming.  There are numerous other beaches in the area, including Playas Hermosa, Ocotal and Flamingo which are much more popular for dipping more than your toes into the saltwater.  Interestingly, each area seems to sport a different colored sand.  While Coco is dark and silty, Hermosa was coarse and golden and sporting many shells.  Ocotal is white.

Waiting for the Horse Parade
If you are of the opinion that Costa Rica is a third world country, you are mistaken. In December 1948, the military was abolished and those funds directed toward education, health care and a durable social safety net. 70 years later, Costa leads Latin  America and the Caribbean region in health and primary education, having a 98% literacy rate.  It provides universal health care and has a history of support for peace and conflict resolution without violence. Feel free to drink the water straight from the tap in all but the most rural areas.  Although it wasn't on the agenda, I found myself getting bridgework with Enrique Parra Dental Care at about one-third of my Alberta estimate and (I'm told) the materials are the same as those used throughout Canada and the USS, Personally, the temporary looked better than my previous bridge and I couldn't be more pleased with the permanent. We met several who found themselves requiring emergency medical care, including orthopedic surgery, all with glowing reviews! We found many who frequent Coco taking care of dental and vision needs simply because  the standards are the same or similar to Canada at about one-third the cost.

Coco has a sense of humour
While Coco is what I would certainly consider a safe community, there are incidents of car theft, drug trafficking and petty theft just as there is everywhere in the world.  Be smart and don't make yourself a target.  Leave expensive jewelry at home; don't leave possessions unattended on the beach;  or your purse on the table while you dance. Use your in-room safe or store cash, credit cards, documents and other valuables out of sight.  

Green Iquana
There is a vast array of tourism opportunities, from zip lining, horseback and ATV tours and myriad water-based activities such as scuba diving, snorkeling, surfing, sailing river boating and raft trips. Eric went off-shore fishing for red snapper; not only did he bring home dinner, he made new friends and had the satisfaction of helping a distressed dolphin caught in fishing line.  Here's the rescue on video!

Many visit the still active Rincon de laVieja Volcano where the fumaroles, hot springs and scenery are purportedly amazing and, if you are up to it, you can add a waterfall that we're told is absolutely worth a sweaty 10km round-trip hike.  We ourselves strolled beaches, boated a brackish river to find myriad reptiles, animals and feathered friends, and learned about the rich and extensive agricultural area from our guide, Oscar, himself a farmer. 

One of the many participants in' 'El Tope' Parade of Horses
Everyone loves a parade!
As Guanacaste is the heart and soul of Costa Rica's equestrian life, it is a fitting place to witness 'El Tope' Parade of Horses from a local soda. You don't even have to be a fan of horseflesh to appreciate poetry in motion. And did I mention, these people know how to party! If Canada thinks that it created 'tailgating', not so; since Colonial times, spectators and riders alike mark this event by filling the streets, all the while drinking beer and barbecuing meats.  

Coming from the land of the Calgary and Ponoka Stampedes, the local rodeo was a bit of an eyeopener.  Trust me when I say that the amount of testosterone in the air is palpable and I'm not talking about the bull. Held in an enclosure akin to a large round pen, young men test their courage by darting in front of the bull to distract it from the fallen rider. While there were no clowns, per se, there were definitely individuals highly skilled at this deflection.  There were many more fueled by a lot of beer but surprisingly, nobody got hurt while we were there.

The parade, along with bull riding and bull fighting, marks the beginning of some of the country's biggest parties and, admittedly, some of its best food! You simply must try the churros and pork and chicken skewers!  

We would also be remiss if we didn't mention the Leatherbacks. Calling Tamarindo home, it is one of the best classic rock cover bands we have had the pleasure of dancing to (not once, but twice!) in some time.  Sadly, we missed a third opportunity at the Blues Festival, held the weekend following our departure.

Be forewarned, you will be responsible for sourcing out much your own entertainment.  Advertising of these local events was all pretty much by word of mouth, and all but the Leatherbacks seemed to run on 'Tico Time'. El Tope, scheduled to begin at 3pm, really didn't get going until dusk, a fact that the locals seemed to be well aware of. Not a problem; we made this an opportunity to acquaint ourselves with the family of our server at the soda we were dining at.  With not a single word of English on the menu, and little more spoken by the staff, we put out best Spanglish to use.  Two things I know:  I'm always good to go with a meal of pollo and I don't want to be anywhere near camarones.

Guanacaste's 'sabanero' (cowboy) culture is alive and well

Hotel and condominium accommodation abound in every size and price range. We ultimately chose Unit #25, in the Las Torres complex, located in Las Palmas Urbanization (see map, above).  About 20 years ago, the area was home to numerous 'cabinas' and frequented by Costa Rican families during holidays. Located about a 10-minute walk north(ish) of Main Street and 5 minutes from the beach, Las Palmas is today a quiet residential community of condominiums and single detached homes.  A strip mall, with mini-mercado and several restaurants, is conveniently located at its entrance; there is a second mini-mall with a couple of restaurants at the other end of the development.  The main road can be a little treacherous at night (there are no sidewalks and the ditches are steep) but is otherwise perfectly safe and getting to the beach is easy-peasy; keep your eye open for the howler monkeys.

Las Torres Condominium Complex
Las Torres complex hosts 48 studio apartments, the largest centralized pool we saw, community laundry room and covered seating area.  The grounds are clean and well groomed, the lovely pool immaculate. There was activity around the pool throughout the day but by 8pm everything was quiet. The only downside we saw in the complex itself is the laundry; with 48 units vying for a single washer and dryer, you had to be on your toes!

Geoffroys Howler Monkey, found throughout Guanacaste
We rented Unit #25 for 3 weeks. While not a fan of ground floor units, this one was conveniently located close to the pool, particularly so, as there are no poolside chairs or loungers. You will want to ensure your unit provides seating appropriate for outdoors (all do not).  While layouts vary, they are all about 200m2 and include a 'bedroom' with closet, separated by a curtain or accordion wall; a kitchen with table and chairs and bathroom with shower. 

Unit #25 has no front-facing windows, which significantly reduces outside noise (we heard nothing) however that is where privacy ends.  The bamboo blinds on the other two windows are ill-fitting and you can see through them in the evening when the indoor lights are on. Both face directly into other units.  The unit is stocked with the most basic of dishware, cutlery, and cooking utensils. Cleaning supplies or typical household items such as coffee, salt, pepper, spices, etc. are not provided; you are expected to purchase these items. Since we were there for only a short stay, we found this both disappointing and wasteful. This unit is clearly a rental property, much akin to an efficiency motel room, not to mention, in need of a deep clean and paint job. In my discussions with others, it is also overpriced; where most units cost in the vicinity of $900-$1000 CAD/month, our unit was $500 CAD/week.

Do not let this deter you from Las Torres as there are some lovely units in this complex; we just didn't get one. Frankly, if you want us to respect a rental like a home, then provide us with a homelike environment. While we managed fine in our three weeks, we would never consider it for a long-stay and there are a few things I would insist upon, including a second set of sheets, particularly as the laundry is often unavailable.  Our final word:  while we recommend the Las Torres complex (see references below); we would not recommend Unit 25.

Faciated Tiger-Heron
We took a single organized tour of the Palo Verde Jungle, with Oscar, of Maleku Tours. Palo Verde National Park is a remote sanctuary best known for preserving wetlands.  Ironically, it's also one of the world's best examples of a tropical dry forest. Not only will you see a wide range of water fowl along Guanacaste's longest river, the Tempisque, there is a good chance of spotting at least some of the howler and white-faced monkeys, iguanas, scarlet macaws, anteaters, crocodiles and caimans, along its banks.  

American Crocodile:  prior to the 1970's they were hunted for their hide and almost extinct in Costa Rica
White  Faced Capuchin Mother and Babe
Our guides made a concerted effort to educate us on each species and remind us that feeding wild animals is prohibited by law. Not only is there a risk of injury (for us and the animal), but also one of transmitting disease, particularly between us and our not-so-distant relatives hanging in the trees.  We enjoyed a Costa Rican lunch and watched a demonstration of how pottery was made by indigenous Guaitil people. We visited Pedro, a lovely gentleman who resided in a 100+ home built by his father and grandfather.

Pedro, his sisters and neighbours make bread in his outdoor oven
So that you too can have a little taste of Costa Rica, I've included a recipe.  While Costa Rica fare is generally not spicy, Chilera can be found on many of its tables during the afternoon meal. If you are adventurous, or enjoy pain, dig deep to the bottom of the jar for the peppers, onions and other veggies.  Alternatively, simply scoop up some of the juice and add a bit of a kick to your rice and beans. You also might want to try a bottle of Lizano; we brought several home as gifts.

The Chilera is spicy; normally it is to combine with the lunch. In all the restaurants you will find it in the top of the table.

1-12 small hot peppers
2-3 large carrots sliced in thin round pieces
2-3 large onions sliced in thin pieces
4-1/2 cups of a cauliflower chopped in small pieces (optional)
2 cups of your favorite fruit vinegar
1 cucumber sliced medium

Combine all the vegetables, hot peppers, vinegar and enough water to fill a container.
Refrigerate for about two weeks until the vegetables and vinegar have absorbed the flavor of the hot peppers.
Used when serving rice and bean dishes and other meals. Shake on or add a few drops of the vinegar to the meal, or add to a soup use it wherever you would a hot sauce.
The pickled vegetables can also be eaten as a side dish. Beware, they are Spicy!

And so ends my reminisces of another vacation well spent.  If you find this information useful or pleasurable in any way, please feel free to share.  If you have questions, please ask them.  Until we meet again. . .


Las Torres Rentals
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