2nd in a 3-part series on a Yukon road trip – Dawson City and the Dempster Highway
Upon our return from six weeks exploring Canada’s north, friends enquired, “So what was your favourite place?” And each time, gazing distantly while recalling the amazing scenery, people and places we encountered, I answered: “Haven’t a clue.”
But Dawson City, Yukon is a good start.
I love Dawson. Unlike cruise-ship destinations on the nearby Alaska coast, Dawson is genuinely quaint. Colorful clapboard buildings line the streets, interspersed with heritage houses leaning drunkenly on a permafrost foundation.
Diamond Tooth Gertie’s is Dawson’s historic casino and dance hall. This landmark saloon was established over a century ago and, while Gertie herself is getting a little long in the tooth, the can-can girls are still high-kicking a vaudeville act each evening at 8:30pm, 10:30pm and midnight. Happy hour at Gertie’s is from midnight to 1am. The manager at our RV park – located a short walk from Gertie’s – winked when she said “the later the show the more the skin.” I suggested to my wife Florence – purely for journalistic purposes – that we take in the evening’s final performance.
“…Their public throes of ecstasy are disconcerting. And should a birder confirm the presence of an olive-sided flycatcher by its loud and clear “quick-three-beers” call – well, just stay out of the way...”
Our June arrival coincided with the midnight sun’s long summer appearance. It may seem frivolous to remark that it doesn’t get dark here in summer, but until you’ve actually experienced this phenomenon, it is hard to appreciate. Darkness never descends; not tonight nor the next nor the night after that. Daylight is a 24/7 thing for six weeks.
There is no respite from the light. One’s natural daily rhythm quickly shuts down, confused, as if dragged through perpetual jet lag. Soon you are eating dinner at 11:45pm, hanging out on the dusky streets ‘til all hours and sleeping past noon; 4am is just an overcast day, juxtaposed with the usual night sounds of street-laughter and squealing car tires. Birds sing non-stop. One night, in this altered circadian state, I found myself and my ukulele busking for cash at 3am outside the venerable Westminster Hotel with a couple of young Quebecois. And we didn’t do badly – after two hours I’d donated only thirty bucks.
Summer here is difficult to digest, but a season of endless darkness would be interminable, unimaginable. Only after a full winter hunkered down in the snow and ice of Yukon can one proclaim himself a genuine “sourdough”. A somewhat easier feat is attaining “sour toe” certification, awarded to all those who slurp up a $5 shot of Yukon Jack whiskey containing a pickled human toe – which your lips must touch. (I am now a proud member of the Sour Toe Club. Fortunately I was nearly as pickled as the toe when the deed was consummated.)
Although the Klondike gold rush ended more than a century ago, Dawson retains its frontier spirit. The streets are full of entrepreneurs and oddballs. Young drifters seek adventure, mingling with cagy old-timers. Secretive men and women still comb nearby creeks, moiling for gold. Astute shopkeepers mine tourist’s pockets. Individuals all, Dawson folk march to the beat of no one’s drum but their own.
Every person I’ve met who’s been to Yukon (don’t say the Yukon, that’s a dead giveaway you are a newcomer, a Cheechako, from the “outside”) returns home gushing about the Klondike story, an epic period in Canadian history. I too am now a convert.
On our last night in town, just shy of midnight, we drove to an overlook offering a panoramic view of Dawson far below. We chatted with a lovely young aboriginal woman picking wild herbs from the steep cliff-face. “I make tea with spruce tips, labrador, cranberry bush leaves… and sage,” she said, reaching for a sprig over the precarious edge. “The caribou pass through here in October. They love sage. Come look.”
The caribou may not suffer from vertigo but I wasn’t going near that precipice. Nearby another woman watched, quietly slurping beer – the same precocious gal who had inducted me into the Sour Toe hall of fame the night before. Dawson is not a big place.
Properly schooled in the art of brewing tea from local ingredients, we departed for a late night game of golf. We arrived at the Top of the World golf course after midnight, so I thought it fitting to ask the proprietress for the twilight rate. She looked at me blankly, shielding her gaze from the sun’s glare.
I decided not to quibble over the green fees, paid the full fare of $24, and off we teed into the grassy tundra. On the sixth hole sunset and sunrise collided, shared only by our twosome – and competing packs of wolves baying at the spectacle.
In the morning, seeking even more vitamin D, we headed further into the perpetual sunlight, north up the Dempster Highway toward Inuvik and the Arctic Ocean. Our tour up this narrow gravel road began with a stop at Tombstone Territorial Park where we chanced upon a weekend gathering of birders. Have you ever met a birder? At the risk of mixing metaphors I must say these odd ducks are strange cats. They make Trekkies look undedicated. Anyone who gets up early to tromp through muskeg in search of a lesser scaup or hooded merganser needs to have their head examined.
It is uncomfortable watching a birder identify the elusive Ruddy Duck. Their public throes of ecstasy are disconcerting. And should a birder confirm the presence of an olive-sided flycatcher by its loud and clear “quick-three-beers” call – well, just stay out of the way. But this obsession with things winged is surprisingly contagious. We attended an evening lecture at the Tombstone amphitheater where a bright young woman spoke on, “Why Birds Sing.” It’s about sex and war. Male birds make song to attract mates and to fend off territorial rivals; no need for physical confrontation. Have the birdbrains out-evolved man? Could we send our best tenors out to resolve border disputes? Think of the savings on anti-personnel weaponry.
After two days with our feathered friends we elected to fly the coop and continue our slow, muddy journey up the Dempster.
Our goal was the Arctic Circle but the owner of Eagle Plains Motel (the only accommodation and gas stop for hundreds of kilometers in either direction) told us that we should carry on a little further, over the Yukon border and into the Northwest Territories to see real tundra landscape. So we did. But the weather was miserable, the visibility poor and the shoulderless road hazardous. Our plan to bicycle across the Arctic Circle line was cancelled. Our bikes, hanging off the back of the van, looked like they’d been dipped in chocolate.
We retraced our path in search of the nearest wand wash. Back in Dawson and $23 in loonies later the RV began to reappear from its dark, molten lacquer.
There are different ways to experience our great north. You can read Pierre Berton novels which, while informative, are also useful as a sleep-aid – or you can go explore an abandoned Yukon River dredge yourself. And bring a pan – there’s still plenty of gold in them thar hills.
Next time: Kluane National Park, Yukon
Gerry Feehan QC is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He and his wife Florence live in Red Deer, AB and Kimberley, BC.
Click below to read Part 1 in Gerry’s 3-part series on the Yukon.
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Revisiting the “All-inclusive” in Cozumel – by Gerry Feehan
What could be finer than swimming in a warm ocean, peacefully drifting over a colourful coral reef, snorkeling amidst a myriad of tropical fish? In my estimation, not much. And one of earth’s finest snorkel sites is the Island of Cozumel, in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
Or at least it was until Hurricane Wilma hit in 2005. The most intense tropical cyclone ever to strike the Atlantic, Wilma pummeled the Yucatan, flattening buildings and killing scores of people. But the death and destruction was not limited to land. The churning storm surge also destroyed life under water.
Cozumel is situated along the world’s second largest barrier reef. The Great Mayan Reef stretches from Mexico’s Yucatan 1000km south to Belize in Central America.
When Wilma finally passed, resorts that formerly advertised “walk-in” snorkeling were suddenly left with ocean desert—broken chunks of dead coral lying in a watery grave. Until then Cozumel had been high on our bucket list. Wilma moved it down a few notches.
There was a time when a Mexican all-inclusive was our go-to vacation; a cheap week on the Mayan Riviera where food was plentiful (if not particularly appetizing) entertainment was non-stop—and best of all, the Corona flowed freely. But those days passed and we gradually moved on to more exotic—and expensive—vacations. So my expectations were not high when we decided to go retro and check out the Fiesta Americana all-inclusive on Isla de Cozumel’s leeward coast. Would the snorkeling be good? Would the resort be serving up Montezuma’s Revenge for lunch?
It didn’t take long for all-inclusive nostalgia to kick in. The first day at the pool we watched a couple of hefty strangers drink themselves into a stupor and pass out before noon in the searing tropical sun. While I am as big a fan of the swim-up bar as the next guy, we were here primarily for the ocean experience.
Cozumel’s currents are notoriously powerful, so that afternoon we walked up the beach half a kilometer, donned our gear and enjoyed a frighteningly quick drift back to the resort. Happily, a decade-and-a-half after Wilma, the reef is showing signs of recovery—tiny colourful fish darted in and out of small but healthy new coral formations.
The following morning I booked a drift dive with a local scuba operator. We motored out to Palancar Reef in Arrecifes de Cozumel National Park, jumped overboard, descended 20 meters and floated through the famed Coral Gardens. It was magical. This deeper reef was unaffected, with pristine red, green, purple and orange coral heads glowing brightly in crystal-clear water. And the sea creatures—sea stars, lobsters, small crustaceans and a multitude of reef fish—were everywhere.
The next day we rented a jeep convertible for the obligatory circumnavigation of the island. We peeked in at some of the fancy resorts on the protected west shore before driving up Cozumel’s rugged windward side where rough seas wave in from the open Caribbean, pounding the unpopulated eastern coastline. En route we stopped for a swim at Punta Sur on Cozumel’s southern tip. Warm calm waters greeted us. We snorkeled over a shallow sandy bottom, admiring large coral heads and schools of damselfish and wrasses. A puffer fish inflated itself defensively, comically. Then we drifted into a garden of sea fans. Acres of purple, pink and mauve giants swayed softly just below the surface. Miraculously, this tip of Cozumel had avoided Wilma’s random fury.
The ocean is not Cozumel’s only attraction. When a new ring road was built around the island, local leaders had the wisdom to leave the old highway in place, close it to motorized traffic and convert the road to pedestrian and bicycle use. Now cyclists from around the globe come every November to participate in the annual Cozumel Gran Fondo, nicknamed “the world’s most beautiful bike ride.”
The Fiesta Americana had a few rusty bicycles available for patron use and, although these old contraptions had been exposed to the briny sea air for years, still it was fun to pedal around the island. We engaged in our own Petit Fondo, from the Fiesta down the coast to Playa Palancar. Our clocking for the twenty-one kilometer return trip was a respectable 60 minutes—excluding the three and a half hours we spent at the Palancar Beach Bar.
The staff at Fiesta Americana was embarrassingly polite and helpful. Early on we became attached to young Moises who manned the coffee and pastry bar in the open-air lobby. By the third morning I had no need to order. While we made poquito talk en Español, he’d whip me up a double café con leche. Moises, eighteen, worked 10 hours a day, six days a week at the resort—for about $20 a day. He didn’t live on the island—too expensive. Every day he endured a ferry commute from the mainland. And yet I’m not sure when I last met a happier, more positive person.
One morning I was feeling self-pity over some trivial e-mail I had received. As Moises handed me my coffee, he asked if everything was okay. I felt like going back to our lovely ocean-view suite and giving myself a very hard look in the mirror—but instead I just ordered an extra helping of bacon with my scrambled eggs. The food at the Fiesta was really good—more than palatable.
So our nostalgic all-inclusive experience was a success—and a heck of a lot simpler and cheaper than organizing one’s own tropical tour. And the entertainment? Awesome—particularly when the two chubby drunken fellows reappeared bashfully on day two, pale as ivory on one side, red as a Caribbean lobster on the other.
Our visit to Cozumel was pre-Covid—but Mexico is open for business again!
Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.
Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management for sponsoring this series. Click on the ads and learn more about this long-term local business.
Cuba’s famed Varadero beach getting ready for tourists again
VARADERO, Cuba (AP) — Little by little, vacationers are returning to one of the Caribbean’s most iconic beaches, which has been a nearly abandoned strip of glittering sand and turquoise seas for more than a year.
Varadero, the surfside star of Cuba’s crucial tourism industry, is slowly getting ready for Cuba’s planned Nov. 15 formal reopening to global visitors.
A handful of tourists, largely from Russia or Canada, have strolled across the 22-kilometer (13-mile) swath of sand in recent days, hunting out the scattering of restaurants that have reopened, dawdling over handicrafts at the few stands that have reappeared.
Medical personnel scan hotel visitors for signs of fever. Waiters, desk clerks and sellers of trinkets wear doubled masks as they cater to unmasked visitors in bathing suits. Largely empty tour buses run down the main boulevard.
At least some of the 60 or so hotels in Varadero remain closed, or pressed into service as quarantine centers. But others are already running.
About 100 people were staying at the 386-room Iberostar Selection Varadero on one day last week.
Juan Carlos Pujol, Cuba operations manager for the Spanish hotel chain, said the company had taken advantage of the pandemic closure to update restaurants or make adjustments for health measures, such as moving tables further apart or extending the reach of wi-fi to broader open expanses.
“We are very content and hopeful because now you can see the light at the end of the tunnel and we want to resume operations how and begin to recover what we had always had,” he said.
The pandemic was a terrible blow to tourism in Cuba, which depends heavily on the industry, especially after a series of ever-tighter embargo measures imposed by former U.S. President Donald Trump — and that have not been significantly relaxed under his successor, Joe Biden.
“I’ve had many months without work, feeling horrible,” said Lizet Aguilera, a 55-year-old weaver who recently reopened a souvenir stand that had been closed for 16 months.
Even so, she said she worries that she could be infected with COVID-19 while at work and bring it home.
“When I reach my house, before greeting anybody I take a bath,” she said.
Another vender, Richard Martin, estimated that only about 50 of the resort’s 5,000 artisans so far have returned to sell after months of hardship.
“It was very difficult,” he said. “The need, the fear, the scarcity. We have confidence in the vaccine. What remains is to open, to show that it functions.”
Cuba says it plans to have vaccinated 90% of its eligible population by the end of November— taking advantage of its unusually advanced biomedical industry to create the only locally developed COVID-19 vaccines in Latin America.
That has allowed officials to plan a gradual reopening to visitors, particularly in Varadero, some 150 kilometers (95 miles) east of Havana.
The town itself has only about 6,000 residents, but it provides thousands of jobs for people in nearby Cardenas, Boca de Camarioca and Matanzas and has some 20,000 hotel rooms — as well as a number of private residences that host visitors.
In 2019, Varadero received about 1.5 million of the 4.3 million tourists who came to Cuba— a number that collapsed when the pandemic hit and Cuba largely closed itself off to visitors.
The reopening will pose challenges: Cuba’s weak economy and U.S. sanctions complicate obtaining products to sell to tourists. A new monetary policy means many services must be paid for using foreign bank cards — though none that depend on U.S. banking institutions.
Andrea Rodríguez, The Associated Press
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