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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.

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management for sponsoring this series.  Click on the ads and learn more about this long-term local business.

 

Gerry Feehan explores Cape Breton Island

Gerry Feehan

A Necropsy in Friday Harbor

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Friday Harbor – by Gerry Feehan

On November 8, 2021 the land border to the USA is open!

The quay at Friday Harbor Labs.

I had no idea what a necropsy was until we visited the marine lab institute at Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. It might have been better had my vocabulary been left unimproved, since a necropsy is not for the faint of stomach.

San Juan Island is in the United States but is actually much closer to Victoria, B.C. than it is to the U.S. mainland. British Columbia’s capital is just a few kilometers away, across the Juan de Fuca Strait. San Juan can only be reached by small plane or, as in our case, via ferry. We embarked with our motorhome at Anacortes, Washington and, after weaving through and around a multitude of conifer-clad islets, disembarked an hour or so later in Friday Harbor, the quaint town of 2200 people that serves as County seat and is the largest town in the San Juan archipelago.

We had come to visit our daughter who had recently accepted a position as postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington marine labs in Friday Harbor. Colette’s area of expertise is the interaction between sea urchins and kelp—that’s what urchins like to eat.

The harbor seal under scrutiny had been floating lifeless for many days and decay had set in.

Friday Harbor Labs is a true scientific research facility. It attracts renowned marine biologists from around the world. Small laboratories hug the shoreline of the lovely grounds. We strolled the shore, peaking in windows, spying pumps, beakers and aquariums full of life. It was exciting and mysterious watching lab coat-clad scientists recording data while carefully poured funny-looking liquids into test tubes.

It is encouraging and reassuring to see real science being performed—and adequately funded. Fortunately a good relationship and camaraderie exists between Canadian and U.S. researchers, particularly in the marine science field. Data is shared and papers co-written, without regard for border fences.

For most of our stay we were “in residence” and treated hospitably by everyone we encountered, from the maintenance people and dining hall staff to the doctoral candidates and tenured professors. Colette’s mentor invited us to dinner and served up a tasty dish of coconut curry soup while we watched sunset from the deck of her rustic home high atop a hill overlooking the San Juans.

The islands thrive with wildlife. On our walkabouts we saw river otters, harbor seals, dolphins and orca whales swim, jump and cavort offshore. On shore deer, bald eagles, raccoons and fat native foxes frolicked in the autumn mist.

In the San Juans, there’s lots of life—both below and above surface.

One brisk afternoon we hired a local guide for a sea kayaking tour in the cold fecund waters off Lime Kiln Point State Park. Colette and her oceanographer husband Mike pointed through the clear water at colourful sea urchins clinging precariously to rocks in the swell below. Colette gets pretty excited when she spots an urchin—particularly when a healthy bed of bull kelp floats nearby. Our guide reached into the kelp and handed me a raw blade. “Here, try this,” she said.

I munched. It was palatable. Nice texture, not too salty, with a kale-like flavour. Our spiny urchin friends have made a good dietary decision.

Drifting in a bed of kelp.

A necropsy is to an animal what an autopsy is to a human: an examination of a dead body to determine cause of death. Fortunately the procedure we observed took place outdoors—on the quay at the Lab. The harbor seal under scrutiny had been floating lifeless for many days and decay had set in. I was careful to remain upwind from the carcass. The necropsy was performed by a renowned local marine veterinarian, Joe Gaydos. He carefully dissected the entire animal—from flipper to brain. No organ was left unchurned: heart, lungs, stomach, glands, even the tongue, were surgically, skillfully removed and splayed out upon the dock in the crisp salty air for all to see. As he cut, Dr. Gaydos carefully explained each step in the process and what role each body part played in the life—and death—of the animal, in a matter-of-fact, good-humoured fashion.

Apparently the animal died of a chronic lung infection. At least that’s what I learned after I was revived by the smelling salts.

The necropsy.

Our last night on the island was a stargazer’s dream. We checked out of the marine lab residence and into the campground at San Juan County Park on the west side of the island. Across the Juan de Fuca Strait the shimmering lights of Victoria seemed a mere stone’s throw away. Florence knit while I lit a roaring campfire. An occasional cloud drifted by to briefly mask the moon and the Milky Way. Camping made perfect.

In the morning back in town Mike and Colette treated us to a hearty farewell breakfast before we caught the ferry back to the mainland. As we sailed away I snapped pictures of Friday Harbor Labs from the ferry deck.  A young couple was out on the windy bow taking selfies. I pointed to the cozy buildings lining the shore and said proudly, “My daughter is a scientist over there.”

They nodded vaguely but I don’t think they heard me.

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management for sponsoring this series.  Click on the ads and learn more about this long-term local business.

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.

 

 

 

 

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

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Gerry Feehan

Gerry Feehan explores Cape Breton Island

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The Cabot Trail makes for a beautifully colourful autumn drive.

The Canso Causeway connects mainland Nova Scotia to the island of Cape Breton. As we drove across the span on a crisp autumn day, the ebb tide was pulling westward, hard through the Canso Strait. We stopped at the Port Hastings visitor’s centre where a pleasant woman bid us welcome and told us we were in luck, “You’re just in time for the Celtic Colours.” Being an observant fellow, I had already noted the changing season—the brilliant oranges and reds of the Maritimes’ fall foliage. And I smartly told her so. “Oh, no,” she laughed, “Celtic Colours isn’t about the leaves. It’s our annual autumn festival.” For nine days every October the entire island hops with a chorus of Cape Breton traditions: ceilidhs, live music, spoken word and dance performances, all celebrating the island’s rich history and culture.

But before we did any festival going, it was exploration time. Cape Breton is a marvel of twisting vistas, glorious hikes, great food—and friendly people. En route to the world-renowned Cabot Trail in Cape Breton Highlands National Park we took a circuitous path, skirting Bras D’Or Lake (not really a lake, more a brackish inland sea). Along the lakeshore near Big Pond we stopped and paid homage to Rita McNeil at the late singer’s eponymous Tea Room. When we finally arrived at Ingonish Beach Campground on the National Park’s southeast border, it was late in the day. We ate dinner and hit the hay. There was a big hike planned for the morning: Franey Trail, a long steep climb to a panoramic viewpoint from which one looks down on the Clyburn River canyon spilling into the Atlantic Ocean. Admiring the view at the summit, we chatted quietly with a young local couple who were proud to tell us the history of the region, their Scottish heritage and the hard lives their ancestors had endured on land—and at sea, which they wistfully stared out as they shared the memory.

That evening we dined luxuriously at the historic Keltic Lodge and later, over a digestif in the leathery lounge, struck up conversation with a European tourist. “Don’t you think Cape Bretoners are the friendliest people on earth?” I asked. We had been overwhelmed by Maritime hospitality. Looking puzzled, he answered dryly, in a thick accent, “I have had only a few weeks here, so I am not yet able to arrive at this conclusion.” Tough sell, those Germans.

When we awoke the air was cool, crisp and clear—a perfect day for an autumn sojourn on the Cabot Trail, which loops for 298km around the northern tip of Cape Breton. We cruised counterclockwise from Ingonish. Our first stop was White Point where the harsh Atlantic  batter stony cliffs along the island’s unprotected north shore. Then we began a twisting ascent through the lush Acadian forest to Cape Breton’s central highlands. The display of foliage was magical. Maple, beech and birch all boasted their brightest fall colours in hues of red, orange and yellow. And, as if frozen in the windless air, the trees had yet to drop a single leaf. It was a palette of autumn perfection.

I pulled the motorhome into a serene overlook. Florence and I sat in silence, gazing through the windshield at the crimson and gold majesty. Suddenly, and before I could exit the vehicle to snap a picture, three vanloads of tourists pulled in, sprung from their seats and began frantically taking photos. Abandoning the hope of any verdant solitude, I instead jumped into the cacophonous human fray and started taking shots of tourists taking pictures.

We set up camp that evening at quiet MacIntosh Brook near Lone Shieling, where 350 year-old sugar maple trees stand sentinel over a long-abandoned Scottish crofter’s hut. Despite the quiet, I didn’t sleep well that night, for there was a menacing giant lurking in my future: Cabot Cliffs Golf Links.

You may have read my charming story about golf in Ireland – and how the Irish courses were the most beautifully humiliating courses I had ever encountered. Well, Cape Breton Island has retained its Celtic tradition not only in music and dance but also in its fondness for brutal but alluring links golf. Cabot Cliffs is equal to the best of its turf cousins across the sea. I was fortunate to secure a tee time—and a private caddy—to enjoy this spectacular course.

Another ball prepares to meet the briny Atlantic.

After the (humbling) golf interlude, we re-dedicated ourselves to exploration by foot with a last hike, on the Skyline Trail on Cape Breton’s west coast. Although crowded, the traipse was enjoyable and the ocean views breathtaking. On a clear day (which we experienced) one can see the white cliffs of Quebec’s Magdalen Islands shining distantly in the Gulf of St Lawrence.

With tired feet—and badly in need of food and drink—we arrived late at Cheticamp Campground. I noticed a sign announcing that the Harbour Restaurant in this quaint Acadian village offered a free shuttle for patrons. I phoned, booked a reservation and requested a ride. 15 minutes later a car pulled up to our campsite and a pleasant lady with a French-Canadian accent said, “Hop in.” It was Lorraine LeBlanc, the restaurant owner. And after a great chow down on Morue en Cabane (slow-cooked cod, chives and pork scraps) and Lorraine’s famous Apple Garden cake, she returned us to our campsite. Now that’s Cape Breton hospitality! Despite my inherent thriftiness, I left a reasonable tip.

Our time in the Highlands was coming to an end and still there was the Celtic Colours to enjoy. The festival venues are island-wide but many artists bunk each night at the Gaelic College in St Ann’s near Baddeck (Alexander Graham Bell’s summer stomping grounds). Widely scattered venues result in a long, dark drive on narrow roads back to St Ann’s after a day of performing. But for the tireless musicians the party carries on—with impromptu jam sessions lasting well into the wee hours.We arrived in St Ann’s on the last night of the Festival. We boon-docked in the Gaelic College parking lot. The Celtic Colours finale was scheduled to begin very late, past 12:00am—and well past our bedtime—so, after a parking lot BBQ, we lay down for a disco nap, awaking after midnight to the sound of instruments being tuned. It was a raucous evening, hosted by the effervescent humour of singer-songwriter Buddy MacDonald. It was past 4 am when the last fiddle was packed unwillingly into its case. We trundled off to bed…  and enjoyed a well-deserved Celtic sleep in.

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.

Exploring Gros Morne Newfoundland with Gerry Feehan

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