Every month Air Canada Vacations produces an eight-page insert for enRoute, Air Canada’s award-winning, in-flight magazine. As the copywriter, it was my responsibility to make these as inspiring and memorable as possible. The popular articles were those where I interviewed someone active in the destination.

Out of the Caves (May 2010)

There is something magical about caves. They are a point of transition between the surface and the underground, the light and the dark, the tangible and the ethereal. Walking into a cave is entering a new space, inviting an experience of otherness.

That is how Dr. Lynne Guitar, leading historian and anthropologist of the Dominican Republic feels about caves; it is also, she believes, how the Taíno Indians felt about them. A complex cosmology of ancestral spirits and love of nature has been recorded in pictographs and petroglyphs in countless caves across the island of Hispaniola.

A 45-minute boat ride across the Bay of Samana takes you to the unspoiled beauty of Los Haitises National Park. Almost as soon as you enter the park, you encounter Cueva de la Arena, the Cave of Sand. And right at the mouth of this cave is the Macocael, the Guardian, a sign that you are about to enter a sacred place.

There is another cave that Dr. Guitar says is a wonder and a must-see. Deeper into the park, away from the bird-filled mangroves, is La Linea. “There is such an incredible collection of pictographs here,” says Dr. Guitar. “There is a spouting whale, countless fish and birds, and all sorts of other foods and rituals.”

The Taíno inhabitation of the island began some 4,000 years ago; their fascination with the magic and wonder of caves presumably at about the same time. The people have mixed with Europeans and Africans but have not vanished.

Dr. Lynne Guitar, PhD is Directora Residente at the Council on International Educational Exchange Study Center in the Dominican Republic.

There be Whales (December 2009)

Even over the phone Kim Beddall is a charming and engaging woman, unabashed about her passion and devotion to whales. For the last 20 years, this Toronto native has lived in Samana in the Dominican Republic, pioneering responsible whale watching as a sustainable economic activity. “The key,” she says, “is to show people that whale watching has greater economic value than whaling.”

Every year, 10,000 or so North Atlantic humpback whales migrate from their feeding grounds off the coasts of Labrador, Greenland and Iceland to the sheltered, warm waters of the Dominican coast to give birth or mate. From mid-January to mid-March, Kim takes 60 people out twice a day on her boat, the Victoria II, and explains how whales first evolved around the equator, how the newborns don’t have enough insulation for colder waters, and how everyone has to help spot the whales.

Solitary mammals by nature, humpbacks come together for brief encounters and then separate, so searching for the telltale spouts is everybody’s job and is part of the experience. The way to call a sighting? “Whale. 2 o’clock!” or whatever direction it might be. Kim says she has a 95% sighting rate and by the end of the three-hour tour everybody’s into the adventure and feels like part of the crew.

Her two favourite experiences shared with her guests? Watching a mother and calf—beautiful and life changing; and witnessing a 45-foot whale breach, metres from the boat—truly humbling. Kim would love to take a boatload of her fellow Canadians out to meet the whales.

The Beats of Mexico City (December 2010)

Often raw, sometimes offensive, but always original and inspiring, the work of the Beat Poets was a challenge to the world at large — a celebration of new jazz, new sounds and new ideas. It was a revolutionary cry to see life as it is in all its grit and glory. They almost all spent some time in the rugged urban reality of Mexico City of the 50s. It was a retreat, an adventure, a road trip and a starting point.

The first stop of a tour of the old Beat neighbourhood, the Colonial Roma district, is an unassuming cantina called Krika’s. In an apartment over this diner of cheap eats, Burroughs accidentally shot his wife Joan Vollmer in 1951 in a drunken game of William Tell. Burroughs received a two-year suspended sentence and later wrote that without Vollmer’s death, he would never have become a writer.

The next stop is perhaps the most famous, Orizaba 210, the unofficial headquarters of the Beats. The original building has been replaced by a red-brick apartment block but its neighbour was once its twin. All of the great Beats stayed here and it was here that Kerouac began his epic poem Mexico City Blues.

Other stops on a Beat tour are the lake shore in the sprawling Chapultepec Park, where Kerouac suggested “Naked Lunch” as a title for one of Burroughs’ books. And Plaza Luis Cabrera, where the Beats hung out to talk nirvana.

To sum up the Beats’ relationship with Mexico City is perhaps impossible, but to discover its architecture, old trees, lively markets, new galleries, cafés and restaurants is to begin to understand Ginsberg’s famous line from Howl: who dreamt and made incarnate gaps in time and space through images juxtaposed, and trapped the archangel of the soul.

The Turtles of Cancun (July 2012)

For over 200 million years sea turtles have swum the oceans and seas of the world. The oldest known species is the archelon, which grew to an amazing 13 feet long and weighed upwards of two tons. The seven modern species are nowhere near as large. The largest is the leatherback, which can grow up to seven feet. In the warm shallow waters of Cancun/Riviera Maya, you won’t find a leatherback. They prefer deep, cooler waters full of jellyfish. What you will find on the sunny Caribbean coast of Mexico is the ancient breeding grounds of the beautiful loggerhead and green turtles.

These turtles can live to about 80 years and don’t reach maturity until about 20. And once every four years or so a mature female will breed and look for a nesting site. Late at night, she’ll pull herself out of the surf to lay her 100 or so eggs in a hole she digs in the sands of the Riviera Maya. She’ll then return to the sea, leaving the eggs to mature over the next few months. An interesting aside, the temperature of the sand during these two months seems to determine the sex of the hatchlings – warmer sand produces more females; cooler, more males. After cracking their shells, the new turtles dig themselves out of the sand and make their way to the water. Some statistics say that as few as one out of a hundred will survive to maturity.

Like any animal, natural predators diminish their numbers. But the turtles’ great threat and the main reason they are now in danger of extinction is human activity. Fishing nets, marine debris (especially plastic garbage), poaching and chemical pollutants can all be fatal. But as in what seems to be a motto for the 21st century, we, as a species, are learning to take responsibility for our actions. We are learning that we share this planet, that our future cannot be alone, that our future is a question of balance.

That’s why Cancun/Riviera Maya has become an active turtle sanctuary. Four inspiring sites along this beautiful coast are now committed to preserving the sea turtle.

A short ferry ride north of Cancun takes you to the quiet seclusion of Isla Mujeres, where on the southern end you’ll find the Tortugranja (or Turtle Farm – something gets lost in translation). This devoted group operates a very successful catch and release program during nesting season. Eggs are collected and kept in safety. After they are born, the turtles are transferred to ponds and then taken to the sea by local school children and tourists.

In Playa del Carmen, The Royal Playa del Carmen operates a similar program, protecting the eggs until they hatch and then organizing release parties for their guests. They take their commitment seriously and operate a turtle patrol program and also encourage lighting restrictions along the beach at this time of year, to help the females nest.

The Xcaret Eco-Park operates volunteer patrols to protect the turtles and collect the eggs. The hatchlings are kept until maturity, giving them the best chance of reproducing. Until they are released, the turtles help the eco-park educate children and adults as to the wonders of this species

The last turtle destination on this sunny coast is perhaps the most famous – Akumal Bay, often nicknamed “The Place of Turtles.” For years now the Centro Ecologico Akumal has brought visitors and locals together in an ongoing effort to protect these giants of the sea for future generations.

At any of these sites along the coast, scuba is an easy way to meet these great creatures. Just remember to be respectful, after all, they were here first.

Things you can do
When you’re visiting Cancun/Riviera Maya between May and October, here are a few things to keep in mind.

  • Do not use lights on the beach. If you do, cover them with a dark red filter or use a coloured bulb. Excess light can confuse the turtles.
  • Draw the curtains on beach-facing windows.
  • If you see a turtle, don’t approach it. Notify the hotel staff or the turtle patrol.
  • Do not interfere with the turtle. You may watch from a distance, quietly.
  • Do not use flash photography.
  • Avoid having beach parties or making loud noises on the beach at night.
  • Keep the beach free of litter or obstacles.
  • If you come across an area that has been marked as a nest, stay clear and tread carefully; baby turtles are growing underfoot.

Playa Mismaloya (October 2009)

“Since man has known woman, there has never been such a night.”

— The Night of the Iguana

The brightly painted boulder read, “You are on the set of The Night of the Iguana” and below that the famous words, “man and woman, ruin and redemption, love and lust, one night they all meet.”

In 1964, John Houston took Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr and Sue Lyon to the isolated beach of Mismaloya just south of the then sleepy town of Puerto Vallarta to film a dark and stormy version of Tennessee Williams’ play The Night of the Iguana. Elizabeth Taylor, who was having an affair with Burton, her two-time future husband, tagged along and their public carryings-on put Puerto Vallarta on the map.

I wanted to discover how much of the old Mismaloya remained. How much of the rugged, tempestuous, tropical passion of Williams, Liz and Burton and the energy of the 60s still survived.

Mismaloya is a quick bus ride from Puerto Vallarta and it is understandably more built up now, with hotels and restaurants and boat tours. But the glamourous sincerity is still there. It’s in the rocks and the buildings. It’s in the stone steps that feel like part of the landscape—organic as if molded from the cliffs. It’s in the thatched roofs and the massive palm trees that reach into the sky.

I set off for a late lunch at La Choza Toño, a family restaurant just off the beach. There are no printed menus and Tony and his son Herman bring out the catch of the day. You choose your fish and how you’d like it prepared. I sat and watched the tropical jungle sway and hum around me and remembered Ava Gardner’s great and gently sultry line, “Honey, you just lie down in the hammock and I’ll fix you a nice rum coca.

Night at the Museum (April 2010)

To celebrate spring and the coming of the languid days of summer, Europe does something wonderfully absurd; it stages a museum night. On May 15, 2,500 museums in more than 40 countries across Europe will be open to the public, free of charge, from 5 p.m. to about 1 in the morning.

Picture it. It’s 10 at night. You and that special someone are high up the side of Mount Montjuïc. You’re walking quietly through the Jardí Botànic. You pass a patch of brilliant, orange torch lilies, waving softly in the moonlight. You turn and there before you is the entire bay and city of Barcelona, shimmering endlessly beneath you.

Or, how about wandering the labyrinthine hallways of the Louvre in Paris at midnight? Imagine studying the details of Michelangelo’s works, the smooth skin of the Venus de Milo or the deep, mysterious eyes of a Mesopotamian god, knowing that the moon is high in the cool, dark sky.

Or in Rome, treading the charming paths of the zoo, enjoying the nocturnal animals you usually don’t get to see. Then a little rest in the aromatic gardens of the Villa Borghese before setting off for the cavernous mysteries of the Pantheon or the Castel Sant’Angelo.

Or in London, for the Tate Modern, the realities of Victorian life at the Florence Nightingale Museum or some star gazing at the spot, longitude 0º, the Prime Meridian of the World at The Royal Observatory in Greenwich.

Now in its 6th year, the “European Night of the Museum” is a fun and original way to discover some of the very best of Europe. Air Canada Vacations now offers more than 40 European destinations. Choose from a wide selection of daily flights, centrally located hotels, car rentals and fun activities.

Jamaica by Shaggy

International Reggae star Shaggy has travelled the world, but Jamaica will always be home. This Grammy-winning, Platinum-selling “Mr. Boombastic” takes us to his favourite places.

The best local eats?
Definitely Screechie in Hellshire Beach (about 30 min. outside of Kingston) for sizzling fried fish and lobster.

Favourite spot for a night on the town?
That’s a toss up between Fiction Lounge and Famous Nightclub, depending on my mood.

Favourite music venue?
For me the absolute best music experience is a street dance. Local radio is great too. They play a lot of Jamaican classics and new artists.

Favourite place for a day at the beach?
Golden Eye Beach on the north coast of Jamaica near Ocho Rios. And yes, it was named by Ian Flemming, the James Bond writer.

Favourite thing to do on a quiet afternoon?
Get in my car and drive up the mountain to Strawberry Hill. When it’s hot, it’s always cool in the hills.

Best place to hang out and experience Jamaican culture?
In the countryside. The food, people, and environment are always true Jamaica.

One essential to bring with you for a trip to Jamaica?
Swim trunks, of course!

Why should we visit Jamaica at least once in our lives?
So you can say, “I did it.”

What’s next for Shaggy?
Currently on tour, but keep an eye out for another album, and see you soon Canada on our next tour!

Chef Pedro Invites us Home

How to explain the success of the culinary scene in Barbados? Pedro Newton, Executive Chef at famed Champers Restaurant and Wine Bar, lets us in on some island secrets.

Why is the cuisine in Barbados so outstanding?
Our cuisine is fresh, flavourful, bordering on spicy. Not only does it feature ingredients indigenous to Barbados, but we often incorporate ingredients from our neighbouring Caribbean islands. We combine all these elements using the latest culinary trends and techniques.

Do you have a favourite restaurant?
Champers Wine Bar was indeed my go to restaurant before I became part of the team. I would have to say that The Cliff Restaurant is also a favourite.

One unique island specialty we have to try?
I would recommend our Pudding & Souse or our national dish Cou-Cou & Flying Fish.

What ingredients will surprise us?
Our creative use of blended herbs and spices, which we combine to produce our specialty seasoning and pepper sauce.

What about Barbados inspires you most?
Our hospitality, our almost perfect weather and most importantly our dining experience.

What flavour embodies the island?
The flavour of local rum infused in both sweet and savory dishes complimented by fresh fruits and herbs.

What is your favourite dish to prepare at Champers, at home?
At work, braised beef short ribs. At home, curried chicken or beef.

One spot from your childhood we should visit.
The Historic Garrison Savannah to watch horse racing.

What do you see for the future of cuisine in Barbados?
A continued effort to revolutionize our cuisine by staying in touch with modern culinary trends and techniques. Utilize more local produce in our dishes, so as to enable us to attain the highest level and recognition as a great culinary destination.

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