Road Trip to Québec City

For the Canada Day weekend, the Fiancé and I decided to go to Québec City. It was kind of a last minute thing, we decided the weekend before that it would be a good, relative cheap, weekend away. One of the benefits to staying closer to home, was saving money in airfare – even the nearly two tanks of gas that we bought was still incredibly cheaper than flying somewhere else.

We booked a room on hotwire.com, and ended up staying at the Chateau Frontenac, which has a long and storied history, that started with the Canadian Pacific railway back in 1893. Our room had an ‘interior’ view, meaning that we didn’t get a view of the city or the river, but of the interior of the hotel. This turned out to be fine, as we overlooked a small garden, complete with apiary! Our room was actually split in two – upon entering, we walked past a small bathroom and into a sitting area (complete with love seat, stuffed chair, desk and chair and tv) and then the bedroom itself opened off the right of the sitting area. (We later realised it was actually in one of the turrets of the hotel)

We arrived in the late afternoon on July 1, so our first order of business was finding some food, and a drink. We headed down the Escalier Casse-Cou (Breakneck staircase) and into the Lower Town, where we grabbed a drink at Pub Des Borgias, on their small patio (great for people watching). We were already to order in French, but it turned out that our server spoke excellent English. After our drink, we headed down along the harbour to Côte-à-Côte, again getting a seat on their patio. I highly recommend their ribs – they’re cooked for over 12 hours, and literally fall off the bone. We were again impressed with the language skills of the staff – we’d been warned not to expect much English in Québec City, but it was turning out to be  far easier than we had thought

The next day dawned grey and overcast. We had found a suggested walking tour in a magazine in our room, so we headed out to do that, winding our way through Upper Tower, crossing over into Lower Town, and getting about half way around the harbour towards the Plains of Abraham when it really started to come down. We took refuge in a little cafe on Rue du Petit-Champlain.

When the rain stopped, we headed back up to the Promenade, and over the Citadel, before heading up the Grande Allée, looking for some place to have lunch. Alas for us, most places were either closed, or offered larger dishes than we were looking for, so we ended up on Rue St-Jean (a pedestrian street) where we got lunch, and drinks, at Saint Alexandre Pub.

On Sunday, we had breakfast at a small cafe across from the Chateau, then down to the Lower Town again for a short wander. This time we took the funicular up the escarpment. It offers spectacular views as it trundles up (or down).  Then it was time to check out and drive back home.

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Riding the funicular to the top of the escarpment 

Overnighter in the Adirondacks

Redfield order in ranking: 15

In all the (four) years of working on the 46, Steph and I had never had an overnighter. All of our hikes, including the entire Dix range, were done on daytrips. Last year we branched out into winter hiking (tackling first Cascade and Porter as primers, and then slogging out to Allen, and enjoying some prime butt-sliding down the slide.)

So this year, we decided that we would finally do an overnighter. We had a good idea of what items would be needed (hint: tent, sleeping bags and pads, and bear can), all we had to do was put everything into motion. The original plan was to hike in on Saturday and out on Monday, and hope to get a lean-to.

We decided to head down over the May long weekend (or rather, the Canadian May long weekend, which was May 21 to 23). We drove down Friday after work, and spent the night at the Hoot Owl Lodge to finalize our packing, and making sure all the food we had planned to bring would fit in the bear can. (It didn’t. We had to be ruthless about what we were going to bring.)

So maybe that’s the first tip. The bear can hold enough for two nights and two days of hiking – two dehydrated meals, two sandwiches, 4 peanut butter rice cakes, two pre-packaged fruit cups, two protein bars, some trail mix, carrots, chocolate covered pretzels, two pop-tarts, a mini-bota box of wine (this was cause for celebration!)…pretty much two of everything, plus toothbrushes, sunscreen, mozzie spray and any garbage we accumulated.

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All loaded up and ready to go

We woke up excited on Saturday, and we in the parking lot by 6:30. We had to finangle some parking (we, um…created…a parking space.) but by 6:49 we were signed in and off on the trail.

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Good morning trail

Which for some reason had grown far, far steeper than we had remembered. It started off with some rolling terrain, before hitting a steep curve at the hour mark. But we kept up our pace (slow, our pace was slow, but steady) stopping a couple of times to remove layers, and to eat and drink some water.

And that’s the second tip. We each carried a litre water bottle, full, and 2.5-litre camelbak bladders, also full. There’s enough water along the trail (and occasionally, over and under as well) that there’s no need to carry that much. In fact, on the hike out we only had water in the water bottles. (Hint three – make sure that your water purification system is handy)

Somehow between last summer, when we did Cliff, and this May long weekend, I had managed to forget about the water crossing about an hour and half in. How I did this, I don’t know, seeing as I have the balance of a three-hour old colt (bad) and always end up turtling over rocks. And with a large, heavy pack on….turtling wasn’t going to work. (I know because I tried and nearly tipped over into the water.) It’s not that the water was particularly deep, it was just deep enough for me. Steph made it over, dropped her pack, and came back to grab mine when….he appeared. My hiker in shining gaiters (I’m sure those gaiters weren’t shining by the end of the day, but they certainly were when he appeared beside me). He asked if I was having trouble, asked if my pack was heavy, then easily swung it up and bounded over the rocks on wings of gortex (or whatever his boots were made of). After that it was easy enough for me to turtle over to the other side.

(Which brings me to this: there is a high water bridge. We still have no idea how we managed to miss seeing it, other than there is no sign when coming in from Upper Works. Coming out again, there is a sign, so we took the swinging, scary, suspension bridge of doom back over, thus freeing us from relying on strangers of unusual helpfulness.)

We came to the Flowed Lands Interior Register shortly before we hit the 3-hour mark. We were bouyed by our time, and excited to be that close to our final destination. We had been aiming for the Uphill Leanto, but had readjusted to finding something closer to Lake Colden, as the extra 2.6 miles from the dam to the lean was going to cause us serious endurance problems with the packs on. (Hint 4 – those packs are heavy heavy heavy, and less is more!)

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Scrambling down

We scrambled along the trail, which had gotten woolier – more large rocks to scramble up, over and around, as well as being relentlessly up. We came to the Colden Dam an hour after signing in at the interior register, and crossed over.

Where we couldn’t find a leanto. There was a sign to one, but….no lean to (possibly it was across the water.) So we headed back over the dam, and to the McMartin Leanto, which was less than 5 minutes back along the trail.

For those planning to stay at the McMartin leanto, there is water access nearly across from the leanto trail – there is a large “No camping” sign about a 30 second walk back up the trail (towards the dam), and a snaking herdpath down to the river.

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Home sweet leanto

Lucky for us, there was plenty of room in the leanto – someone else’s gear was neatly stashed along one side (he would in fact hike out that evening, so we ended up with the leanto to ourselves.) We dropped the heavy packs, ate some lunch, packed our day-packs with items we might need, and headed out to conquer Mount Redfield.

And this brings me to tip 5 (possibly 6 if you think of the water tip as a hint) – there is a reason that people hike in with the heavy packs on one afternoon, hike the next, then hike out on the third day. Because you will probably be exhausted from carting around that massive bag, and all that weight.

Since we were as exhausted as we were, we decided to leave the Gray-Skylight hike, and do Redfield. We have a grand finale planned for July, and Gray-Skylight-Marcy is a doable loop, but Redfield was off on its own lonesome, orphaned last year when we summitted Cliff.

We made good time to the Cliff-Redfield junction, arriving just over an hour after leaving the leanto. We had been told that the hike to Redfield was by far easier than Cliff, and was more of a hike than a climb.

It appears everyone lied to us.

It was a long slog up a river, scrambling over rocks and under fallen trees. I fell more times than I wish to count (scrapping my knee, ripping a hole in my pants, and grinding dirt into a cut on my palm) but the view was incredible – Skylight looming beside us, Marcy looming behind us, and Redfield in front. We hit the summit at 2:13, not quite two hours after leaving the junction. It’s possible that had we left the hike until the day after we could have been quicker – we were definitely feeling the strain from having hiked the packs in.

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Number 43! Only 3 left

A group of guys made the summit before us, and we could hear one bragging that he was at number 39, so I felt the need to yell out “Number 43!!!” because dammit, I’m so close! We joined them on the lookout to stare out at the Lonely Mountain (aka Allen), before heading back to the summit to eat some more, and whinge about how tired and sore we were.

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Allen, the lonely mountain

The hike down was a lot quicker, especially as we knew where the route was this time. On our way up we had a few moments where we weren’t sure if the trail went up the side of the brook, through the brook, or even crossed the brook. There are small cairns, but they can blend in if you’re not paying close enough attention. But tip 6: the route never crosses the brook, it frequently follows the brook, is in the brook, but never crosses to the other bank. The trail when it is on the land is very easy to see and follow.

We stopped once to refill our camelbaks (and treat the water, just in case) and to talk with a few other hikers who were heading up Cliff. We staggered over the suspension bridge (muttering pleas under our breath as it swayed over the rushing, snow-melt infused water below), and then over the dam and to our leanto, where we found our leanto mate packing up to head out. A ranger had told him there was a 20% chance of rain overnight, and a 70% chance of rain the next day, so he decided to head out early. (Great for us, we got the leanto all to ourselves!)

Our night was quiet (no bears!) and amazing – the soft rain did start around 3 in the morning, and the sound of it hitting the roof of the leanto (solid, no leaks!) was peaceful. The rain continued into the morning – going for the bear can, which had been carried out away from the leanto, kind of sucked, but we took our time, gathered up our gear and repacked, and by the time that had finished…..the rain had stopped. We got to walk out again without rain dripping down our backs. Tip 7: if it has just rained, don’t grab a tree for balance, you will shake the rain on the leaves down your back. We did slide a bit on the slick trails – they had been wet on the way in, and man were they waterlogged on the way out! Gaiters were definitely the way to go.

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You know it’s a maintained trail because of the logs

My last tip for an overnighter: keep some water and food in the car. It was nice to get some filtered water and food that we hadn’t been eating for two days.

Total climbing time: 11 hours 7 minutes
Left parking lot at: 6:49, back in leanto at: 5:56
Summitted Redfield at: 2:13

 

Mini-Break Boston

Last year, Ross and I won a trip to Toronto, and we ended up with a $300 gift card on Porter. (The gift card came after we had already bought our tickets.) With time running out to use it, we decided to hit up Boston for a mini-break weekend.

Because I work a compressed schedule, I get Friday afternoons off (I work longer hours Monday to Thursday to make up for this time) which is great for heading out on a weekend trip. We arrived in Boston around 6 pm, and took a cab to the hotel. (It was close to $30 when you add in tip and tolls.) We could have Ubered, but I was ready to just get to where we were going, so cab it was.

We had booked our hotel through hotwire.com, and were pleasantly surprised. We ended up with a reservation at Omni Parker House, the oldest continuously operated hotel in the US. (The oldest continuously operated hotel in North America is in Montreal, in case you were wondering.)

Omni Parker House still encompasses the ornate decor of the 1850s – the high ceilings in the lobby have decorative woodwork trim, and large chandeliers hang over heavy tables decorated with fresh flowers. Even the elevator doors have patterned overlay (perhaps tin?) It was a little disconcerting to walk in in jeans and sweaters. But we were given a warm welcome, checked in quickly, and shown to our room.

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Are you there Boston?

The next day dawned…..overcast and grey, not bright and clear, but while it threatened to rain, it didn’t. We headed out on a wander, our go-to destination activity. We briefly followed the Freedom Trail, accidentally in the wrong direction, ending up at the starting point in Boston Common. Rather than turn around, we continued on through the park, and across the street to the Boston Public Gardens.

From there, we headed into the Beacon Hill neighbourhood, back into Boston Common, and then over to the Financial District, at which point we thought ‘we should probably settle on a destination.’

So we picked Faneuil Hall. Which is probably better visited on a warmer, sunnier day. While there were loads of people popping in and out of the buildings, it wasn’t a great day for people watching. The indoor markets were crammed with people, and the outside saw people hurrying to get back inside. But the food smelt amazing (we didn’t stay to eat, as there was no where to sit and our feeties were hurting) and I could see this being a great spot to sit and relax on better days.

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The best part was the dinosaur

After a brief stop at a pub, and then back to our hotel room for our City Pass vouchers, we headed back west to the Museum of Science.

Side note: If you’re trying to decide if the City Pass is it worth, the answer is yes and no. We enjoyed not having to stand in line to buy tickets to the Aquarium, but for the amount of time we spent at any one attraction….it was more that we felt since we had bought them, we might as well visit them.

Back to the trip. We headed to the Museum of Science, arriving an hour before it closed. We traded in our vouchers for City Passes, and headed into the museum, which is…a little dated. Maybe I’ve been spoiled with the Canadian Museum of Science and Technology, when it was open here in Ottawa, but this one was a little flat. The optical illusions were a little dated (and the lighting needs to be fixed) but we still enjoyed an hour of looking at things and playing with things, and watching the chicks hustle in their incubator.

On Sunday, we woke to partly sunny clouds, and we thought we might be in luck. We headed to the Skywalk, another attraction that came with our City Pass. If you’ve been to the top of the Empire State Building in NYC, or Chicago 360 (formally the John Hancock Observatory) than you’ll have an idea of what this is. If you enjoyed those, you’ll enjoy this (and vice versa, if you’re tired of panoramic city views, this is a miss.)

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The only time I’ll cross this line is walking along the road trying to get somewhere else

While we were on top of the world (or at least of Boston) it started to drizzle, and it stayed that way for most of the day. We walked back to Boston Common, coming across Duckling Day (which I’m still not entirely too sure what that is, but it involved a school band and face painting) and then back to the hotel to rest in the lobby (and use their wifi).

Once we were rested (or our feet were) we walked (do you see a theme  here?) to the New England Aquarium. Which probably wasn’t the best of ideas, seeing as it was Mother’s Day, and a rainy one at that. But we went in anyway, as it was the final attraction that we wanted to visit on our City Pass. Inside was the usual hubbub of tiny humans and penguins. We meandered around the exhibits, staring at fish (including some that we had seen while snorkelling in Hawaii), slowly making our way to the top of the central aquarium. Then it was back down, over to the octopus tank, and out.

No trip to Boston would be complete without some local flavour (Ross had eaten chowder for dinner the night before, but I’m not a fan of seafood), so we went back to the hotel and ordered some Boston cream pie at the restaurant. (In the hotel history, they say that the dessert was invented by their chef, or possibly his assistant, in 1867. Although Wikipedia states that it was actually 1856.)

A whirl-wind visit, but a fun one, the weather notwithstanding. It would be fun to go back in a summer month, and follow the Freedom Trail to the end, as well as visit the North End, and The Paul Revere House.

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This is a cat I found in a bookstore in Boston. It is now my favourite place.

 

What’s in Your Phone: Travel Apps

The advent of smartphones has made my travelling so much easier. And I don’t just mean being able to Skype people at home, or ask Trip Advisor for a restaurant recommendation while on the road, I also mean the issue of what in the world do I pack in my carry on to keep me occupied on a flight? Now I don’t have to pack one thousand and one things in my pack, I just have to download them to my phone. (I have a Samsung, so I generally save apps to my memory card, rather than to the internal memory.)

I live in Ottawa, so FlyCanada (an app from the Ottawa airport) really helps out, in that gives you the status of flights, both arrivals and departures. It’s really convenient – I can check my flight status to help me plan when to arrive (i.e. if the flight is delayed, I won’t be sitting around the airport for several hours.) Other airports may have their own app.

In the same vein, I download (and then delete to save space) airline apps when I’m flying them. WestJet and United are two airlines that I fly with often enough to keep their apps on my phone. (WestJet because it’s an economical way to fly west, and United because most of my flights south and to Africa go through Dulles airport in Washington.)

Because The Fiance and I have membership with Priority Pass (which isn’t for priority boarding, rather it gets you into airport lounges) we have their app, to help us figure out a) if an airport has a lounge, and b) where exactly that lounge is. Best thing is, you don’t have to be connected to the internet to use it – you can look up where a lounge is in a airport offline.

Another app that smooths your travels is Seat Guru (also a website, if you don’t feel like adding another app.) This one lets you figure out the good, and the bad, seats on a flight. Fill in the departure and arrival airports, flight number, and voila – it determines what airplane the airline is using for that flight, and which seats are good, so-so, and to-be-avoided-at-all-costs.

While traveling, I sometimes have a hard time converting currency. It’s easy enough if it’s a simple 10 to 1, but if it’s a weird amount (130X to $1, for example) then I pull out XE currency. Rates are up-to-date, and take the guess work out of prices.

I spend a lot of time in countries where I speak very little, to none, of the local language. So if I need something other than a beer, or the bathroom, I whip out my Google Translate app. Not only can I type something in in English and get the translation, you can now open the app, hold it up to something printed in the local language and it will translate it for you. There is a caveat – it has to be a major language – French, German, Portuguese, Russian, Chinese, although sadly Arabic doesn’t seem to be in the list.

Talking about Google, we also use the Google Drive app. We have our travel documents scanned in and saved in case of emergency, as well as copies of pre-booked hotels/activities, and frequent flier numbers.

And since I always end up somewhere that I didn’t think I’d end up (I’m big on talking with people when I travel, who then suggest a place I hadn’t known about) I also have the Trip Advisor app on my phone. Great for suggestions on restaurants, pubs, hotels, activities…

In the same vein, I have a few hotel/hostel booking apps on my phone – Hotwire.com, Hotels.com, Hostelbookers, Hostelworld. We occasionally leave a night or two unbooked for unexpected side trips. Or we book in somewhere that we don’t like….and sometimes we get a special discount if we book through the app.

I spend (probably) far too much of my travel time in NYC. So I have an NYC subway app on my phone. SO much easier to figure out the closest subway (we spend a lot of time just wandering around NYC), or what route to take to get where. A lot better than unraveling (and trying to re-ravel) a paper map.

And finally on the planning side is the Time Out app. Letting you see a list of things to do , nearby bars, and make a reservation at a restaurant, among other things, this app covers (select) cities in Europe, Africa, the US, Asia, Australia….pretty much everywhere except Canada. (Boor-urns to that!)

On the fun side, I have a few other apps to help pass the time while waiting….anywhere. At the airport, on the plane, on a train, at a restaurant….

My ereader is a Kobo, so I also downloaded their app. I sometimes find it easier to navigate buying a book on my phone – say if I’m using a wifi that’s password protected, it’s a lot easier to navigate that issue with my phone than with the ereader.

Shortyz. I love crosswords, and pre-smartphone era (which for me, was up to a few years ago) I would pack a crossword book in my carry-on. That alone doesn’t take up a lot of space, but add to it a couple of books (I got a tablet in 2010, but didn’t get an ereader until just a few years ago.), a journal, a deck of cards….and bags start bulking up. So if you’re a crossword fan, Shortyz is a great app. Download a few days worth of puzzles, this app pulls in crosswords from multiple sources, from pop culture (People Magazine) to easy-to-hard (LA Times, depending on the day of the week). Along the same vein, I also have Sudoku and Solitaire downloaded.

Buttons and Scissors is a game that involves buttons of different colours that you ‘cut’ in a straight line off the board. You can’t cut past a different coloured button, and you have to cut at least 2 buttons at a time. A bit of mindless fun, it occasionally requires a bit of strategy as you try to figure out what order to cut in to clear the board. (I also have Candy Crush, but the 5 lives go by so quickly.)

Coffee and Chocolate Making

Coffee coffee coffee, to quote one of my favourite tv shows (you should say it really fast to replicate it well). While I can live without my coffee (not chocolate, that I need or I turn into a wailing she-b***h), the ritual of drinking it is well ingrained in me, and finding out how it’s grown, roasted and ground is fascinating (to me).

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A farm along the drive

While at the typical house on our Monkey Land excursion out of Punta Cana, we got a quick tour of a small, local coffee plantation, and also got to learn about chocolate.  So basically, if they had grown strawberries as well, it would have been my ultimate place to be.

We arrived around 10 a.m. at the ‘typical house’ as it’s styled on the excursion site. We were given a brief tour of the house, before heading onto the farm to get a crash course in coffee and chocolate.

I’d been on a coffee tour years ago in Costa Rica, so I was familiar with the process. Coffee ‘cherries’ are picked and then spread out in the sun to dry for 2 to 3 weeks. After that, they’re milled – in Dominican Republic, they’re put into a large vessel and pounded with  a club – sort of like a giant mortar and pestle. After that, they’re roasted, ground….and you get to brew it for delicious, delicious coffee.

I had had a similar indoctrination to harvesting chocolate while in Cuba (Baracoa- great chocolate if you happen to get down that way). Chocolate is harvested much the same. Cocoa pods grow on trees, in a variety of colours (green, brown, red), but once the pods turn yellow – they’re ripe. They’re picked, and opened to reveal…..weird alien looking, gooey insides that no one in their right mind should ever have tasted.

But you can – the white seeds inside taste faintly sweet when you suck on them (bitter, if you bite on them). But, that’s not chocolate. The white seeds are fermented, dried, and then roasted.

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Ready to eat the powdered chocolate

At that point – you can eat it. It’s the purest form of dark chocolate. So, pretty much bitter, but…..oh my god, still good.

At the typical house we were at, they put the roasted cocoa beans into a grinder (much like coffee), mix in a little cinnamon and brown sugar (both organic) and voila! Tasty, sweet chocolate. (Before they could afford grinders, they used to rub the roasted bean on a grater to create the chocolate powder.)

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What caused all the problems at security

We ended up buying a package of both the coffee (in bean form, since we have a grinder at home), and the powdered chocolate. And of course, we got pulled over at security in the airport because the bags sent of the xray machine. And then of course, no one spoke English and we don’t speak much Spanish (beyond ordering drinks and asking where the bathroom is), so the security guy had to poke a hole in the bag to get a good smell….thankfully it was the coffee bean bag, so I didn’t end up with chocolate covered everything by the time I got home.

 

 

Monkeying Around at Monkey Land

One thing I’ll give resorts is that they’re a lot like hostels, in that people talk to one another more than they do at hotels. You sit down in the lobby to check wifi, you start chatting. You sit down at lunch, you start staring at the crowing peacocks, look over at the person at the next table, and start talking. You go to the beach bar for a nightcap, and you…well if you’re me, you try to read a book, but people start talking to you.

Which is how we ended up chatting with people at a bar one night (they flagged us down to ask if we were from Holland. Which we’re not, for the record.)

They had booked a tour to Monkey Land before leaving home, and told us a bit about it. You hold a small bowl of food, and the monkeys come over and climb over you, jump on you, and just generally have a lot of fun playing around. This was about all the information we got – they weren’t even sure at that point what the name was – they thought it was on an island, in fact. So the next day we googled ‘monkey excursion punta cana’ and…voila. Monkey Land.

We booked online, and had no way to print the paypal receipt, but I screenshot the email, and that’s what we used when we were picked up. We had no problem with not having a paper receipt.

Runners Adventures picks you up in a new, well taken care of vehicle, and drives you to a meeting point (which happened to be just across from the dune buggies). From there, people climb into the correct vehicle (I guess occasionally, they have different vehicles pick up people from resorts in other locations) and off you go. The road at first is smooth, but eventually we pulled off onto a very bumpy back road.

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Through the mountain pass to Monkey Land we go

From there, we wound our way through the mountains, before stopping at another typical house. Unlike our tour with the dune buggies, this one was more informative, with information on growing, harvesting, and roasting both coffee and cacao. Then it was another sales pitch and sample of the coffee and hot chocolate, before we were on our way again to Monkey Land.

At Monkey Land we were given a short “do’s and don’ts” list – don’t panic, don’t pet the monkeys, do allow them to use you as a climbing post, and then we headed into the monkeys’ enclosure.

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The enclosure walls

The enclosure is pretty huge – the monkeys have more than ample room to play, run around, and live. There are sides, but no ceiling/roof, and there is plenty of vegetation. The monkeys are squirrel monkeys – they’re pretty small, about 2lbs full grown, so when they jump on you, you’re aware of it, but it doesn’t knock you over. They were even-tempered, playful, and very interested in our food bowls.

Once inside, we were handed a small metal bowl filled with peanuts, cucumber, bananas, melons, apples…lots of different fruit. We were lined up again a railing, underneath a tree, and the monkeys ran over to pick through our bowls for whatever treat they wanted. They climbed over us, stood on us, jumped on us…and it was the cutest thing ever.

After  a few minutes, we walked down to a scenic lookout for photos, and more monkey mugging, and then around to a massive tree that the monkeys sleep in.  Again, we were lined up for the monkeys to climb over, and after that it was back out of the enclosure.

All in all, we spent about a half hour in the enclosure, asking our guide a few questions, taking pictures, and getting lots of monkey loving.

Dominican (Republic) Drift

It’s 7 am, I’m on vacation, and yet I’m up. Two of these things don’t go together.

But I get to drive a dune buggy (or boogie, as they insist on spelling it) today, so I’ll make the sacrifice.

We had booked the tour through our travel agent at home, hoping to have things paid upfront before our vacation, so we didn’t have to think too much about money while we were away. This was advertized as a dune buggy tour, with a visit to a typical house, and then a swim in a cenote. The Fiancé wanted to do the dune buggies, I wanted the cenote swim, it seemed a great compromise.

(After a quick google, I found out that cenotes are natural sinkholes filled with water.)

So at 8 am, we’re eating breakfast in the buffet, sucking back coffee because somehow we need to function, and coffee seems the best way to make that happen.  At 8:30 we head to reception, the pick up point, for our 9 am pick up. (It takes about 10 minutes to get from the buffet to reception.) We avail ourselves of the free wifi, and move to the entrance, waiting on the benches that line the walkway.

And we wait and we wait.

And then we wait some more, because maybe it’s (fill in name of country here) time. Our travels have taught us one very important factor: Most places have a very fluid sense of time, and a (insert time here) meeting could be 20 to 30 minutes later. We’re not rushed, we’ve got time, and we figure they won’t start without us.

Only they will, because they don’t pick us up.

And this begins a long journey of phone tag, frustration, and at least one middle finger directed to yours truly.

We email our travel agent at home about the problem, then we ask at reception to use the phone and call the (local) company. The woman at reception responds with a “I’m just scratching my face” middle finger, but nonetheless calls the company. The company informs me that a) I should have called at least 48 hours before to reconfirm (never mind that my voucher says ‘confirmed’ and we called 6 days ago to confirm) and b) I should have talked to their (non-existent) on-site representative, but not to worry! She would call me in my room in 5 minutes.

To save you the problem of reading the next two hours of back and forths between us and our travel agent, suffice to say that we didn’t get the call, we did get frustrated, and we insisted on a refund before heading to the beach, where there were no sun loungers left. (It was an all around frustrating day).

But we did get a call from the (apparently existent) on-site rep, who offered a tour the next day in place of the missed one. This time pick up would be 8 am. We decided to give it a go instead of fighting for a refund, so we agreed.

So here I am at 6:30 am, blurry eyed, trying to find someone with coffee in the buffet.

After that, it was back to reception, waiting again, and with relief a pick up by Punta Cana Boogies. We ride in the bumpy transfer vehicle to their headquarters, where we are given a quick run down of safety procedures, and needed equipment (something to cover your nose, as it is dusty, and helmets), and sign our waivers. Then we pick our helmets (in my case a bicycle helmet) and our vehicles, we put on our safety belts, and then….we wait.

Once everyone is ready to go, we head out of the parking lot, through a puddle (soaking everything we have with us) and down the bumpy, uneven back road.

Staff has blocked off any cross streets, allowing us to go through without fear of being smacked by wayward truck, or of getting lost. We head up a hill, down a hill (gathering speed at an alarming rate) and then around a bend to a beach.

Where people are surfing, and NO ONE TOLD ME I COULD SURF. I totally would have picked that as my excursion had I known. But alas, I didn’t, so I get to watch people surf and try to head off all the peddlers who want me to buy stuff. (Apparently my ‘Non, gracias’ isn’t enough, and they look at The Fiancé for confirmation.)

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Surfers waiting for the perfect wave

After the beach, we drive back past the headquarters, to a typical house, hitting more puddles (and cow patties, that splatter all over my hands). We’re given a quick briefing on growing coffee, before they give us the sales spiel. However, we love coffee, so we buy a coffee package, before wandering around the building while others barter and check out the cigar rolling.

Then it’s on to the cenote. It’s a quick 5 minute drive from the house. We pull up in a double line, jump out, and head towards the cenote. And are promptly disappointed. It,s not a ‘swim’ as advertized, rather it’s a ‘line up with others, quickly strip, jump in, and quickly get out for the next person in line.’ The jump isn’t far – about 3 to 5 feet down to the water, and fairly safe; while there are rocks, it’s easy to jump just past them to the deeper water. It wasn’t very cold – more like an Ontarian lake in June, fresh and cool, but not a shocking jump right back out again cold.

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Blurry cenote visit – we were rushed down, in, and out

After our dip (jump?) in the cenote, we dry off (always bring your own towel! Douglas Adams had it right), and it’s back into the dune buggies to drive (past the typical house) to the headquarters, where we mingle around while they try to peddle DVDs of pictures, soft drinks, and ice cream, before heading back to the resort.

All in all – lots of fun. Dune buggies are fun to drive, cenotes are fun to jump in, and it’s a good morning out. But it’s definitely a dune buggy tour with a cenote tacked on.

 

 

Punta Cana: Caribe Club Princess Review

This is our third attempt at an all-inclusive vacation, although I’m not sure if the first one counts. Our first foray into the world of resorts was in Cuba – we spent 2 weeks backpacking around on our own, before ending at a resort for a week. We took a taxi across the causeway to Cayo Coco, arrived at the hotel, and then spent a week trying to relax on the beach, while wishing that we were still out on the main island.

And after that, we went to Jamaica, where we were a little spoiled. We travelled with Westjet, who had a representative meet us at the gate, and show us to the lounge sponsered by our resort (Couples). The 5-star resort itself was lovely – small, quiet, adult-only, and they had a no tipping policy.

This year, after a hectic ride through Botswana and Zimbabwe, we decided to do a week in Dominican Republic at a resort. We went middle of the road – not the cheapest package we found, but not the most expensive either. It fit our criteria – on the beach, food available nearly 24/7, and relatively good reviews. We booked the resort, and an excursion, through our travel agent, thinking to have everything paid up front so that we didn’t have to worry about cost after the fact (and those costs skyrocketing as they are wont to when I get to researching destinations).

So here’s the thing. The all-inclusive resort thing doesn’t work for us. I know lots of people who it does work for – and everytime they talk about their trips I get this vision of relaxing on a beach, no worries in sight, everything taken care of…..and then I go on an all inclusive vacation and things just fall apart like paper towels in the bath tub.

So here’s how it went down.

We arrived to a quiet terminal in Punta Cana with only our fellow plane mates milling around at the carousels. We found ourselves with a porter (which turned out to be very helpful) who grabbed our “it’s a very small green bag” bag, and then led us quickly through the airport to our bus. (Instead of us wandering around trying to determine which bus out of the many there was the one we needed to be on.) A bit of waiting later (not everyone was lucky enough to have a porter like ours), we were off for the resorts.

So far so good, right? And it was. We checked in super quick, jumped on the shuttle, waited a beat to see if anyone else was joining us, then took a mad dash through the resort to our room.

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Shuttle on the resort

Where the toilet didn’t work. Where the safe didn’t work. Where the balcony didn’t lock, even though we were on the first floor. We called reception, who had someone there within 5 minutes (good) but who couldn’t figure out what was wrong with the safe, so we had to wait for reception to reset the code (bad). This means that we missed dinner at the buffet, which ended at 10:30, and couldn’t eat until the snack grill opened at 11 pm.

The rest of the stay was in a similar mode – we’d have some good, and then we’d have some bad. Because our room was incredibly loud (on the first floor, right by a shuttle stop) we asked at front desk if we could change rooms. The first person we talked to was a little rude, the second  (in the afternoon) was much happier. A few days later, we got great service when asking about a comfort room to use on the last day (our flight wasn’t until the evening, and check out was at noon), but then when I asked to  make a local phone call from the front desk (after our excursion company didn’t pick us up) I got a “I’m just scratching my face” middle finger. Or we would get great service at the Lobby Bar, but at the swim up bar we’d put in an order, and never get our drinks.

And it didn’t stop there. The food was mediocre at best – either over-cooked, or under-cooked, rarely done right (the exception being the roast chicken).  Or very few veggie dishes available or very few meat dishes available. Some mornings servers were on the ball, and we had coffee refills really quickly, other mornings it was like no one was working and even that first cup of coffee was like a pipe dream.

Our room would be cleaned well, with the towels refreshed, but the shower not cleaned. The sheets on the bed were crisp and white….but the bottom sheet didn’t reach the end of the bed; there was a good two inches were our feet were touching the mattress cover (removable and washable, so maybe it was clean).

Resort rules weren’t enforced, so people would reserve loungers on the beach, or around the pools, either the night before or early in the morning. If you didn’t get up by 8 am, and reserve a lounger before breakfast, you’d be out of luck until close to 4 pm when the sun worshippers headed back to their rooms. The dress code for the buffet was theoretically no beachwear, but you’d see guests in fishnet bikini covers. Now I realize that the resort can’t control all the behaviour of the guests, but having someone go around the remove towels from reserved loungers when they’re putting them back in place at night would a start to making a more enjoyable stay for others.

And all of that is why I don’t think I’m a resort person. I want a bit more variety – in food, in drinks, in things to see and do; I want to be able to take a stance on bad service by not giving them more money, and finding another hotel/restaurant/bar.

Least I leave you thinking I’m a whiny, elitist traveller, let me focus on the good. The beach was fantastic. A long crescent of white sand, it stretched in either direction (we were in the middle of the crescent). The waves were fantastic – I don’t know if it’s an always thing with Punta Cana, or a result of the wind while we were there (it was fairly windy the entire week), but we had crashing white-water waves to play in the entire time. We had bright, sunny weather the entire week, with a few rain showers at opportune times – at 4:30 for an hour or so, or overnight.

The resort is populated by birds – from the peafowl (2 peacocks and at least 6 peahens), to herons, ducks and geese, it’s a birdwatchers paradise. The staff fill feed bowls for the birds, ensuring that there are plenty around to entertain the guests. As a bonus, we were there shortly after hatching, so we saw so.many.babies!

Ultimately, I wouldn’t recommend the resort (or its sister resort, Tropical Princess) simply for the staff’s cavalier attitude towards guests.

What’s in Your Pack

I’ve been working towards the 46ers (the 46 mountains in Adirondack Park that are over 4000′) for a few years. I’ll admit to being an idiot when I started – wearing jeans, sneakers and a cotton shirt, carrying only 500ml of water and a small one-shoulder backpack that contained my wallet, an apple and a pb sandwich, I climbed Cascade and Porter mountains. Despite the lack of proper gear, I had a great time (except the descent. Those boulders are killer on the thighs) and I was hooked. 4 years later, I’m looking at a finish; I’m only four peaks away.

2 Summits. 4 Hours. 1 Bobsled. 1 Road-Trip.

Do not wear this hiking

I’ve learned so much in the past four years. What to carry, what to leave, and what to wear. When to push on, when to turn around and when to put the camera down and enjoy the view.

But the biggest, most important thing has always been what to have in my pack. I started winter hiking last year, and it’s been a learning curve for how to pack.

I have two packs – one for summer, which is smaller, and has a built in rain cover; and one for winter-like conditions (so anything from fall to spring). With my larger pack, if weather conditions look iffy, I bring a rain cover – I absolutely do not want my extra gear in there getting wet – especially the clothes. If I need to change, I need to change into dry clothes!

The essentials

I always carry a map and compass, and more importantly, I know how to use them. If you don’t know how to use either, sign up for a back country course, ask a friend, or sign up for a guided hike! It’s a good skill to have. A GSP can be a good thing to have, but technology can fail. Plus a compass takes up next to no space, and a map can help you figure out how far (or near) you are to your goal. If you happen to run out of water, it can also help you find the nearest water source, not something a GPS can help you with. When I’m on a new trail, I often have a guidebook, to give me an idea of what to expect next.

My hiking partner and I have gotten stuck on a mountain, as the sun set, with a 2 hour hike back to the parking lot. Headlamps are a must. It can be surprising just how quickly the dark comes on – the trees filter out a lot of light, and  the sun sets earlier as it falls behind mountains. Add in cloud cover, and you could be stuck on a trail that you can’t follow.

Having a headlamp is great, but what happens in the batteries die? Especially in colder temperatures, batteries just don’t last as long. Extra batteries, that you can easily find!, really should accompany you.

Another essential in my pack is a small first aid kit. I keep wetnaps (for cleaning cuts and scrapes, or my hands if they get mucky with pine sap), a few bandaids of varying size, Second Skin (for blister relief), duct tape (to keep the bandaids on) painkillers (Advil, Tylenol, Aleeve, whatever), antiseptic cream (Polysporin or the like), water purification tablets, and a small pair of scissors (the foldable ones you can get for sewing). For most minor injuries, this is enough. Anything more serious, I wouldn’t be able to treat on the trail anyway. In addition to this, I have a travel size bottle of sunscreen, lip balm (with SPF), and mozzie spray for the summer months.

Hanging off my pack is a whistle, which is mostly in case I’m lost and need rescuing. I can blow a whistle a lot louder than I can yell.

I nearly always (except for that time that I hiked with The Fiancé, and left him for dead) hike with the same person, so she carries fire starters – matches, and fire starting material (lint works well, or actually fire starters that you can get at an outdoor store). While she carries this, I carry the first aid kit.

In winter and shoulder seasons, I carry a space blanket with me. I have occasionally kept it in my pack in summer months, if the temperatures are expected to cool significantly overnight.

Considering I’m often out for over 10 hours hiking, invariably I end up having to empty my bladder. It would be disgusting if we all just left our waste sitting in plain view, so I carry a plastic trowel, so I can dig a cathole to bury my waste. Along with this, I have kleenex (for either this, or if my nose gets runny) and a a plastic bag for garbage (kleenex, or food waste)

The clothing

I always have some extra clothing in my pack, less in summer, more in winter. But I always have a spare set of socks, in case of a soaker when crossing streams and rivers. I keep them in a plastic bag, to protect them from a dunking, if I fall in a river. (Again.) In summer, I also carry water shoes if I’ll be crossing a larger river that I may have trouble fording.

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Water shoes, first aid kit and wide-brimmed hat, on a break

One of the things always in my pack, winter or summer, are water resistant grippy gloves. In summer, they protect my hands from pine sap, poking bits, and help me climb up rock. In winter, they cover fabric gloves that keep my hands warm, and allow me to grip snow covered things (ladders, branches, rocks) without getting my hands wet.

A breathable rain jacket, and either rain pants or gaiters, also come in handy if I’m in a particularly muddy area. I generally only have the rain pants if there’s a good chance of rain that day (which for me is roughly 40%), otherwise I stick to gaiters.

I could not hike without a wide-brimmed hat. Sunglasses just don’t do it for me, when I’m switching between shade and sun. But a wide-brimmed hat works no matter what.

The food

When I first started hiking, I carried a lot of food.  Actually, thinking about it – I still do, I just eat less of it now. But here’s what works for me, with the caveat that what works for me might not work for you:

  • A small bag of trail mix (raisins, dried bananas, peanuts, cashews, m&ms, sunflower seeds)
  • Protein bar (more for emergencies than actually eating)
  • Cheese (Babybel is really easy to take hiking)
  • An apple (which is more to give the apple a tour of the trail, I rarely eat it)
  • A small baggie of veggies (carrots, celery, broccoli and cucumbers, usually)
  • Yogurt (one of the single serve containers)
  • A sandwich (of which I only eat half, if that)
  • Chocolate covered pretzels (guaranteed these will be gone)
  • A multi tool utensil (fork, spoon, screw driver, ratchet) to eat the yogurt
  • Whiskey (because you have to celebrate the summit somehow!)

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    Summit whiskey is the best whiskey

I don’t eat about half of what I carry, food-wise, but just in case. If I need to spend the night on a mountain, I want to be able to feed myself. Or if I meet someone who has no food left, I want to be able to help out.

The water

I hiked 6 Adirondack mountains (Cascade, Porter, Algonquin, Iroquois, Wright and Giant) , and then I hiked Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. On Kili, I was told to drink 3L of water a day, to help with the altitude adjustment. That’s stuck with me, so I always carry 3L of water – 2L in a camelbak, and another litre in a plastic water bottle.

The water purification tablets in my first aid kit and in case I run out of water, and need to refill out of a stream. (This happened on June day when we hiked the Dix Range.) I also have a life straw, which contains a filter in the straw.

Special to Winter

New York State regulations state that either skis or snowshoes are to be worn when there is 8 or more inches of snow. In early and late winter, this often means that in lower elevations there is less than the required amounts, but as you climb the amount of snow starts to grow. So I pay attention to trip reports to gauge how much snow there is.

Additionally, I carry an extra bottom base layer, and two extra tops – one base layer, and one outer layer. When we stop for a break at the summit, I start to get cold, so I pull on the outer layer. It goes back into my pack when I start hiking.

Indian Head

It was finally time to tackle another peak in the Adirondacks. It had been a weird winter – first Steph and I were both away. After that I had my wisdom teeth out, then Steph got sick, and I followed two days later. Plus, the weather was all over the place, lots of snow, weeks of barely 0C temps, one week of below 20C, back up to plus temperatures, and then rain. We’d been checking trail conditions on the Aspiring Adirondack 46ers Facebook page to see what kind of traction might be needed. The two weeks before we headed down, temperatures were in the single plus digits, and snow had mostly disappeared from lower elevations, but was still thick enough up top for snowshoes to be needed. Then the rain hit about a week ago, and the Friday before we were to hike, the temperatures dropped and it snowed a couple of inches. Snowshoes wouldn’t be needed, but microspikes (or even crampons) would be.

Seeing as we’re about 4 hours north, we always drive down the night before. When we’re climbing anything from the Adirondack Loj trailhead, or the Lake Road, we stay at Tmax and Topo’s Hostel. It’s a great hiker hostel – people go to bed early and get up early to get on the trails early.

So Saturday we were up and on the road by 6:45, before turning around because we had both forgotten something, and then back on the road again. We were making good time – no traffic, no sun in our eyes, lovely scenery….when a deer suddenly jumped out onto the road, and ran across it right in front of us. Steph had been thankfully looking in that direction, and was on the breaks in a heartbeat (which I don’t think either of us had at that point, because holy crap this is what they warn you about) and…we stopped. We stopped an inch from the deer as it ran pell-mell across the road and into the woods on the other side. And then we just sat there for a second, before driving away and trying to get our breathing under control.

So it was with that drama that we arrived at the Lake Road parking area, and walked towards the register. As we neared both it and the gate, Steph grabbed my arm to get me to stop walking, and said “deer” in a soft whisper. (You see, last summer when we were heading back to the trailhead from Cliff, I was staring at the trail, and Steph gasped and grabbed me, causing me to panic because I thought “BEAR” while she saw “deer”, so this time she didn’t want to startle me.) I still jumped, though, because I thought (stupidly, I know, but it wasn’t even 7:30 yet on a Saturday) that I was about to walk into a deer….and it was essentially a replay from  last year.

So we signed in around 7:20, with the idea of climbing Colvin, and if we had time, Blake. (We were willing, if somewhat reluctant, to orphan Blake, even if we needed to go back over Colvin to get it).

The road was well packed, well frozen, but had no snow cover. As we walked on, the cover became a dusting of snow, before finally the road was covered in about an inch of soft, white powder. There were very few tracks in front of us, and we ran into a few people, but for the most part it was quiet and still.

If you remember from my post on the first time we did Colvin and Blake, don’t take the first trail that says “Colvin.” If you do this, you’ll be one step ahead of us because we did take the first trail, and were way-laid by a small, but significant, water crossing. With the melt, and rain, from the previous weeks, the normally small crossing didn’t have what we considered a good fordable area. I’ve got balance issues when it comes to water crossing (I am not a rock hopper, I’m a rock-slipper-faller-on-my-knee-er). At this point we pulled out the map, realized that we should be on the other trail, and bushwhacked the 50 feet to the Lake Road.

Shortly down the road, we came to the junction that we had wanted all along. We followed the single set of footprints, before realizing that we shouldn’t just blindly follow someone else’s tracks because we have no idea where they were going. We were still on the trail, but we started paying attention to the trail itself, and to the markers along the route. We came to a normally small stream crossing, but again – the rocks were pretty icy, and the water covered the rocks just enough to make me hesitant to cross it.

We debated it a little bit, but decided not to risk it – especially seeing as it was only about 8:30, and we didn’t want to get stuck on the wrong side of the stream in the afternoon if there was any more melt.

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A bluebird day in the Adirondacks

From the junction of the Gill Brook trail and the short-cut, you can go up Colvin or you can go to Fish Hawk Cliffs, or Indian Head. Having never been to Indian Head, we decided to head in that direction. (When one door closes, another opens, and all). No one had been on the trail since the snowfall the day before – it was pure unblemished snow. “Hey,” we thought, “this will be good winter experience for finding a trail! With the safety of being on a marked trail, just in case.”

The trail was fairly gradual at first, and most snowed in, but just like the Lake Road, there was only an inch or two of snow. In a few spots, it had started to melt, and we tried to avoid getting our feet wet in the small puddles.

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Rippling ice over leaves on the path

We had a few moments were we thought we had lost the trail (some blowdown from winter storms had fallen over the trail) but we quickly got back on track each time. We came to one section that had small rock faces that were covered in ice, but it was easily by-passable, although we did put our microspikes on. The snow had turned into an icy, concrete-like mass – and below that was a layer of pure ice. It was definitely not bareboot appropriate.

Near the top is a steeper section that required a bit of finagling, including a ladder that had ice on only one side of the steps (the cliff beside the ladder was casting a shadow on one side of the ladder, causing the ice there to remain, while the other side was getting full sun.) The trail leads to s short junction with a look-out 75 yards to the left, and the trail continuing on to Indian Head to the right. We passed an open rock face, and followed the path as it meandered up and down, until we came to the summit. We sat for a quick food break, before heading back to the sunny rocks for a true lunch (chili!)

The trip down was uneventful, although the snow and ice had started to melt more by this point. Where there had been small puddles of water previously, there were deeper puddles, and the snow had lost its icy crispness. We ran into a few more hikers on our way out – which we thought was unusual, until we looked at our watches and realized it was only noon. Our walk to the register was slow but smooth – we stopped a few places for photos, and just took it easy.