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Todayville Travel: Home-Swapping and Hard-Falling In Whistler

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I was navigating a black-diamond run at the end of our last day in Whistler. The path dropped through a steep mogul-field then narrowed to a single track in thick forest. I veered hard right through a tiny opening between two Douglas fir trees. I emerged blindly from the dark boughs. Terra firma vanished. I was hurtling off a ten-meter cliff, in free fall.

What was I doing here?

My date with this Whistler precipice had its genesis in – of all places – a golf course in New Zealand. We were teeing it up last March in Nelson, on the South Island, when a fellow-duffer approached us on the first tee. He was solo so Florence and I asked him to join us. He introduced himself as Russ, from Vancouver. We played a pleasant nine holes together, shook hands and parted ways.

“This is just too weird,” said our fellow Canuck. “Let’s have lunch.”

Two weeks later –and a thousand kilometers distant – we were hiking Mount Maunganui, on the North Island. As we arrived huffing and puffing to the summit, there stood Russ and his wife Barb, chatting affably with a fit young Kiwi. We laughed at the coincidence, commented on the fine Austral weather, and moseyed off.

Two weeks distant– and another thousand kilometers removed – we were examining a cross-section of New Zealand’s biggest and oldest tree – a 3000 year-old Kauri – at the aptly named Kauri Museum in the tiny west coast village of Matakohe, when who to my wondering eyes should appear but good old Russ.

“This is just too weird,” said our fellow Canuck. “Let’s have lunch.”

So, over flat-white coffee and whitebait (a hideous Kiwi delicacy consisting of fried egg and a worm-like fish), the four of us sat, laughed and marvelled at the wonders of New Zealand – and our trifecta of coincidental encounters.

The Feehans were – as usual – travelling without reservation, flying by the seat of their pants and scrambling daily for nightly accommodation. Russ and Barb were at the other end of the organizational spectrum. They were happily bunked in just two spots during their entire two-month sojourn to New Zealand. As members of www.homelink.com/ they had exchanged their house in Vancouver for accommodation Down Under.

Russ and Barb travel in a sphere of gratis lodging, swapping their Vancouver abode – and Whistler condo – for digs the world over.

I pondered the merits of our pleasant home in Red Deer and looked at Russ, wondering whether he and Barb might enjoy a holiday in frozen, flat central Alberta. But Russ didn’t look like he’d been born yesterday.

Then I remembered our condo in Kimberley. It’s a great spot in B.C’s lovely Purcell mountains.

And that’s how we ended up in a quaint ski chalet for a week on Nita Lake, in Whistler. In return, Barb and Russ will be golfing and biking the Kootenays for a week in September chez Feehan.

Preparing for a day of skiing at Chez Russ and Barb

We haven’t signed up for Homelink yet – but what a great concept: why leave your home vacant and idle, spending a whack on hotels, when you can swap for free domicile across the pond (or at Whistler)?

My only previous Whistler experience occurred in 1984, and although the 80’s weren’t exactly the 60’s, still I recall very little of that trip. I do remember a wild and crazy Doug and the Slugs concert, performed al fresco in the Whistler Village common. And I recollect that Bill Johnson won the World Cup downhill in 1 minute 54 seconds. (Billy was the quintessential American bad-boy. The great Franz Klammer derisively referred to him as a “nasen-borer”.)

We skied that same downhill run with our friends from Saskatoon in January. It took me just under nine minutes top to bottom – and I cheated, stopping the clock each time I paused to rest my weary legs – or discreetly probe my proboscis.

Whistler is slightly more sophisticated than sleepy Kimberley. Kimberley’s Northstar Mountain has five chairlifts. Whistler and her sister mountain Blackcomb have 37, including the incredible Peak 2 Peak gondola that spans 4.4 kilometers and whisks skiers between the two resorts in a matter of minutes. When completed a few years ago it was the longest and highest lift in the world.

Peak 2 Peak Gondola

The lift capacity at Whistler/Blackcomb is an unimaginable 65,507 skiers per hour. At that rate the entire population of Red Deer could be boosted to the top of the mountain in about an hour and a half.

Gerry’s Volkls (front right) stacked amongst hundreds of other skis

Snow conditions throughout B.C. have been great this year. Each day tens of thousands of stoked skiers shared Whistler’s terrain with us. The 2010 Olympics ended nearly 9 years ago, but the party carries on. The hills and streets echo with languages and accents from around the globe.

The Olympics ended almost nine years ago but the Whistler party carries on

Our Saskatchewan friends, Joe and Carla, are gung ho: first in line for the 8:30 a.m. gondola opening and last down the hill for après ski festivities. They frequent the blue runs (easily logging over 20,000 vertical feet in a day). I enjoy these cruising runs but find I lack speed restraint – and my aging bones aren’t up for a high-velocity crash. My new passion is tree skiing, a slower but more rewarding, methodical way of descending the hill.

And that’s how my encounter with the Whistler precipice happened.

Arcing headfirst, I careened down the snowy cliff-face, employed an unintended somersault and landed flat in the middle of a cat track.  I lay still, a puddled mess, piecing together the previous few moments of existence.

Miraculously, I was unscathed. My skis and poles were jammed part way up the cliff, deeply scathed. I climbed up, retrieved my battered equipment and tentatively skied down to the chairlift where my Saskatoon acquaintances awaited. It was they who had suggested I might enjoy that treacherous black trail.

“How was the run?” asked Joe.

“I wouldn’t recommend it,” I said, emptying snow from inside my goggles.

That night we relaxed in front of a roaring fire, enjoying the view across Nita Lake and the glowing mansions fronting Whistler.

The foggy daytime view across Nita Lake

In the morning we bid adieu to our prairie friends and our Whistler digs, packed the Subaru and, avoiding the congested Vancouver corridor, took an alternate route home, north up Hwy 99 through Pemberton and down the narrow, perilous pass into Lillooet and thence back onto Hwy 1 at Kamloops. En route I had a rather close call with a cliff. But that’s another story.

Hwy 99 North through Pemberton and Lillooet is spectacular and avoids busy Vancouver

Gerry Feehan QC practised law in Red Deer for 27 years before starting his second life as a freelance travel writer and photographer. He says that, while being a lawyer is more remunerative than travel writing, it isn’t nearly as much fun. When not on the road, Gerry and his wife Florence live in Red Deer and Kimberley, BC. Todayville is proud to work with Gerry to re-publish some of his most compelling stories from his vast catalogue developed over more than a decade of travel.

Gerry Feehan

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Gerry Feehan

Revisiting the “All-inclusive” in Cozumel – by Gerry Feehan

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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.

The swim-up bar.

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.

Walk-in snorkeling at the resort.

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.

Sea fan.

Giant Brain Coral.

Sea star.

 

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.”

Not all the animal life is underwater.

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.

Cozumel is a long way away.

 

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.

Moises.

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.

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Gerry Feehan explores Cape Breton Island

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Cuba’s famed Varadero beach getting ready for tourists again

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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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