Canadian Wanderer

Travel plans, thoughts & lessons

Author: Canadian Wanderer (page 1 of 21)

High Level Bridge Streetcar Edmonton; History in Motion

There is nowhere else except in Edmonton where riders can experience the highest streetcar river crossing in the world transported along at a stately pace in a restored almost century old streetcar across a century old bridge like a transportation time machine.

The Edmonton Radial Railway Society is the operator of historic streetcars boasting the largest fleet of heritage streetcars in Western Canada with over twenty-five streetcars including eight in seasonal service, two undergoing restoration and fifteen others in storage or awaiting restoration.

The streetcar takes riders from Edmonton’s historic Old Strathcona area through the only Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) Tunnel built east of the Canadian Rockies along former CPR tracks out onto the High Level Bridge for the short journey into Edmonton’s Downtown.

Hankai Electric Railway (Osaka) No. 247 was built in 1921, rebuilt in 1947 and remained in service in Osaka until 1990 when it was acquired for spare parts by the Edmonton Radial Railway Society and shipped to the Alberta capital. When the streetcar arrived however it was in such excellent condition that the plans were revised and the car restored for use on the High Level Bridge Line.  Osaka No. 247 has been in regular seasonal service since 1997 and was for a time the only streetcar running on the line.

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The High Level Bridge is an iconic Edmonton landmark but this bridge is both a physical as well as historic link to the past as work began in 1912, the same year as the separate communities of Edmonton and Strathcona amalgamated to become one city. The rail deck soars 47 meters or 155 feet above the North Saskatchewan River and the crossing via streetcar affords riders sweeping river valley views in all directions. The bridge was designated a Municipal Historic Resource  when it was added to the Alberta Register of Historic Places in 1995.

At the southern end of the High Level Bridge there is a siding that allows the two streetcars to pass as there is only a single set of tracks across the bridge’s rail deck. Passing Osaka No. 247 is the 1947 vintage Melbourne 930 which served the Australian city until its retirement in 1997 before being shipped to Edmonton as an ambassador for the City of Melbourne and the State of Victoria. Following extensive truck and brake overhauls, car 930 entered service in 2006 and is well suited to the High Level Bridge Line because of its seating  for 50 and max.  capacity of 140 passengers.

video by author

The tracks of the former CPR line winds their way through the Old Strathcona neighborhood on Edmonton’s south side terminating at the Strathcona Streetcar Barn & Museum, just north of the Strathcona Farmers Market. The route runs to Jasper Plaza south of Jasper Avenue on the north side of the river with three intermediate stops where passenger may request a stop.

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A 34-minute round trip ride costs $7 per passenger and includes admission to the Strathcona Streetcar Barn & Museum which has gathered artifacts, pictures and information relating to Edmonton’s original streetcar system whose service ended in 1951 as well as the historic streetcars gathered from around the world. A short 1949 colour film of Edmonton’s streetcars is also shown.

The High Level Bridge line runs daily May 17 – September 2 before dropping to weekend only service between September 6 – October 14 before the last run of the 2019 season on 14 October.

Resort Review: Paradisus Playa Del Carmen La Esmeralda

Guests checking in to the Paradisus Playa Del Carmen La Esmeralda Hotel could be forgiven for thinking they were in Bali as the beachfront all-inclusive resort exudes an upscale exotic vibe that is unlike other family-friendly resorts along Mexico’s Riviera Maya coastline.

A short distance from Playa Del Carmen’s famous Fifth Avenue and 45 km from the Cancun airport this five-star resort offers 510 sumptuous suites, a variety of fun amenities for kids, and a charming environment surrounded by lush tropical landscaping with the adult-only  enclave Paradisus Playa Del Carmen La Perla right next door.

Upon arrival, the lobby greets guests with an aquatic oasis complete with koi fish, small turtles and large modern art.

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The front desk is less a central station and more of an anteroom off the lobby with an adjacent lounge for guests awaiting their rooms or transportation pick-up. I appreciated that during the check-in process while a resort wristband was required of all guests it wasn’t the cheap plastic variety but rather a small wooden disc with the Paradisus logo and black string making it more of a trendy bracelet and less of a utilitarian identification item.

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Sporting the spiffy new wristband but being too early to be assigned a room, I tour the resort and beach before stopping for a bite at The Market, a casual restaurant serving an à la carte international menu which includes an awesome smokie sausage on a bun that really hit the spot.

Room 2252 is a Junior Suite with two double beds and at just over 500 sq. ft. is spacious with a small white leather sofa and coffee table as well as a glass table next to the mini-bar which worked well as a spot to power up the the laptop.

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photo by author

There is an electrical outlet at the glass desk however only one so charging multiple devices here wouldn’t work. The room overall has enough outlets but most are used for the items such as the nightstand LED clock radio and iPod docking station and while the relative lack of outlets stood out to me the upside is the large, laptop size room safe does have a pair of USB ports on the inside back wall so charging devices while they’re locked up turns what could be a negative into a positive.

The bathroom has a large sliding door to the hallway as well as two smaller sliding screens above the jetted tub that when closed offer some privacy and is a much better format to the open concept bathroom.

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In addition to the deep soaker tub is the rainfall shower stall with shower wand that offers an invigorating morning shower experience with upscale French fashion designer Thierry Mugler toiletries. The frosted glass doorway to the toilet opens both inward and outward which is infinitely more user-friendly than other similar doors I’ve encountered at other resorts than open only one way.

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The space-saving sliding door concept is carried over to the closet which opens to the safe and trio of drawers below as well as the clothes closet which has more than enough wooden hangars to house my meager resort-wear collection.

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The 360-degree room view of the Junior Suite is here and is exactly the same layout as room 2252 but on a higher floor as it features a distant glimpse the ocean however not enough for the resort to categorize it as ocean view. In fact none of the resort’s rooms are close enough to the the waters edge to be called ocean view so those travelers wanting a room with a view take note.

The large (108 sq. ft.) balcony features a pair of wicker chairs and small coffee table but could easily fit a chaise lounge chair which would be a really nice addition. The tropical view overlooks the swim-up pools and forest of towering palm trees.

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The aquatic center of the family-friendly resort is the pirate ship playground which is perfect for smaller children with the Sunrise Grill serving snack food and a swim-up pool bar nearby  for adults.

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Once during my stay staff set up a foam party on the pool deck that proved massively popular with younger kids.

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Surrounding the pools are thatched roof Bali beds plus lounge chairs and umbrellas scattered beneath towering royal palm trees. The Bali beds really suit couples but I noticed two adjacent beds used by extended multi-generation families with chaise loungers for teens or adults wanting some time in the sun. There are day beds away from the more active pirate ship pool that are very quiet and I found these my preferred spot to relax and read with an occasional cocktail delivered by one of the attentive waiters who make regular rounds to deliver thirst aid.

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Not all Bali beds are not created equal as a chart at the pool hut shows with the ten beds in red nearest the Sunrise Grill being part of the resort all-inclusion program and free to claim each day without charge however the others, including the “Premium” beds immediately around the pirate pool, cost an extra USD$29 – $79 per day. The beds themselves are identical and there are no extra perks earned with paying more so the only real difference is location.

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Coatis, also known as the coatimundis, are members of the raccoon family native to South America, Central America, and southwestern North America and roam freely throughout this family-friendly beachfront resort.

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As the coatis are wild animals parents should talk with their children about giving the furry foragers room to do their own thing and not try and pet them. It seemed fitting that at a family-friendly resort families of coatis could be seen from time to time around the grounds.

A recent addition to the choice of pool play places is the Splash Water Park opened in December, 2018 with zones for toddlers and water slides and a central climbing castle for older children. The big bucket dumps its water every few minutes bringing shrieks of delight from kids doused by the deluge.

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The water park, which is open daily 10 AM – 5 PM, is part of the resort’s all-inclusive program so no extra fee is required to enter.

The beach at the Paradisus Playa Del Carmen La Esmeralda is reached by walking down a long wooden boardwalk and is one of the few disappointments as it ranges from good in spots with lots of room from the tree line and water’s edge to other sections which are noticeably narrower.

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In places erosion has left the beach with a high spot sporting lounge chairs several feet above a lower level which is short gap to the water.

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The lack of guests occupying spots on the beach is likely due to the brown seaweed Sargassum that’s fouled beaches around the Caribbean in recent years and despite the best efforts of resort staff to remove it the volume is enough to make that very hard. The ankle-deep seaweed extended in spots 3 – 6 feet from the shoreline making wading through it to swim in the water where it floats like a brown stain on the surface very unappealing.

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I spent far less time at the beach during my 3-night stay at this Paradisus because of the Sargassum than I would’ve had it not been a factor but found solace in the serenity of the Bali beds by the pool so was more than content with my stay. It’s almost impossible to predict the future scale of Sargassum as time & tide may deposit it more in certain areas and less in others but for those vacationers preferring pristine beaches the options are to seek alternate resorts  less affected by the seaweed, alternate beach destinations or accept that it could impact a future vacation.

The nightly entertainment in the North Avenue Bar outside the main buffet Noas varies from magicians to the Mexican theme night which includes a mariachi band playing favorites such as “La Bamba”, a traditional Mexican folk song that’s one of the most popular songs in the state of Veracruz and was written decades before its most well known version by Richie Valens released in 1958. The dancers are a pair of lovers who, as the choreography progresses, place a red sash on the floor and dance around it until the end when using only their feet they tie it into a bow with which symbolizes their commitment to each other.

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Outside Noas is a stroller parking pad reserved for VIK, Very Important Kids.

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The dining is a high point of this resort as there is a restaurant to suit every taste on both the La Perla and La Esmeralda sides but over a short three-night stay I was sadly unable to enjoy all the restaurants.

Bana is an Asian-fusion restaurant with menus featuring sushi served Western and Eastern-style along with Teppanyaki and a sushi bar only for adults.

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The Grill in La Perla is an Italian-Argentinian steakhouse with an outdoor patio feel. The host welcomed us but said finding an open table may prove tough due to a large corporate group that had reserved one section of the restaurant but within minutes a table was set and we were seated much to our pleasure. The interaction summed up the resort staff’s willingness to bend a few rules to accommodate guests I experienced during my short stay.

Hadar on La Perla side is the buffet breakfast restaurant twin of Noas in La Esmeralda and I appreciated its quieter morning mood without the tiny tot tantrums and volume. Don’t get me wrong as I like kids but there’s something to be said for a leisurely breakfast and coffee without the interruption of other little diners.

Passion by Martin Berasategui is a Basque-French restaurant named for the famed Spanish chef whose restaurants hold a total of ten Michelin stars, more than any other Spanish chef. There’s a    a 360-degree view of the restaurant here but this eatery is not part of the all-inclusive program and will cost MXN$1,650 or roughly CAD$115 per person.

Adult guests of the Paradisus Playa Del Carmen La Esmeralda may enter the neighboring adult-only Paradisus Playa Del Carmen La Perla by way of a hallway in the Zocalo, a zone my adult friend jokingly dubbed the DMZ or demilitarized zone separating the two halves of the larger Paradisus resort complex.

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Travelling with a friend I’d chosen the La Esmeralda for its two double beds over the one king bed rooms on the adult-only La Perla side and before arrival expected we would spend virtually all of our time with the adults however I preferred to spend the day pool side in La Esmeralda for its quieter Bali beds and visit La Perla for its tamer morning breakfast buffet restaurant and spicy evening entertainment which includes live DJ’s. The one morning I tried La Perla side I’d just settled into my lounge chair when a  speaker a few feet away began blasting the soundtrack to an aquatic Zumba class being held in the main pool and so I abandoned my spot shortly thereafter due to the noise.

Speaking of noise pollution, even on La Esmeralda side there are speakers seemingly everywhere around the pool deck with satellite radio broadcasting an upbeat tempo all day long which for those like myself who prefer a quiet zone free from audio interference is an issue. The Royal Service pool areas on La Perla side seem an island of tranquility so perhaps next visit I’ll upgrade to this room category.

There’s lots to like about the Paradisus Playa Del Carmen La Esmeralda from its seamless exchange privileges with the adjacent adult-only sister section, Paradisus Playa Del Carmen La Perla, to the variety of quality cuisine options, ultra user-friendly rooms and suites to the authenticity of the staff who are genuinely eager to please guests and would rate is as one of the  best family-friendly, all-inclusive resorts in Riviera Maya and one of my top resort stays ever.

the resort map and overview

Pros

  • Family-centric, all-inclusive beachfront resort
  • Sumptuous suites; some with direct access to swim-up pools
  • Several fun and interactive outdoor swimming pools; one with a swim-up pool bar
  • White sand beach has sun loungers, umbrellas, and water sports
  • Guests have access to 14 buffet and specialty restaurants and 11 bars and lounges
  • Yhi Spa offers massages, a sauna & steam rooms plus a fully equipped fitness center
  • Extensive interactive Kids’ club
  • Family Concierge available with some rooms with a member-only lounge and dedicated staff at the beach & pool
  • Free Wi-Fi throughout the grounds
  • Evening entertainment

Cons

  • Some rooms are a bit of a hike from the beach
  • Some restaurants and facilities are located in the adjacent adult-only Paradisus Playa Del Carmen La Perla
  • Detached from the nightlife of downtown Playa Del Carmen
  • Some restaurants require reservations
  • More in-room electrical outlets would be handy
  • Seaweed on the beach
  • Wristbands required

 

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Blatchford Hangar, Fort Edmonton Park Edmonton

There could be few more suitable venues for hosting a travel presentation than the historic Blatchford Hangar at Fort Edmonton Park and so it was with interested I learned the hangar’s  roots trace all the way back to Edmonton’s pioneering years in aviation history which began barely a decade after the Wright Brothers took flight.

The building is a reconstruction of the aircraft hangar at the the first licensed ‘air harbour’ in Canada named in honour of one of its biggest proponents, Edmonton Mayor Kenneth Blatchford. The original hangar was officially opened on January 8, 1927 and saw the city grow up around it before its demolition in 1979.

The modern, multi-purpose space may be rented for conferences, fund raisers, social gatherings and weddings with room for 200 –  600 guests depending upon configuration and equipment.

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An outdoor picnic site is also available as part of the facility rental and the immense sliding hangar doors open complete for an indoor/outdoor event.

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Fort Edmonton Park is nestled on 64 hectares (158 acres) of wooded parkland along Edmonton’s River Valley. What began as a Canada Centennial project in 1967 to reconstruct the old Fort Edmonton, quickly grew to encompass much more after construction began in 1969 and now includes the 1846 Hudson’s Bay Fort as well as the Streets of 1885, 1905, and 1920, depicting the evolution of Edmonton’s early history. The city owned attraction celebrates it’s 50th anniversary in the Summer of 2019 but inexplicably opted to close its doors to the public during its special anniversary year and for all of 2020 to complete a $165-million dollar upgrade project aimed at turning the local facility into Western Canada’s biggest cultural attraction. There’s more on that project here.

Fort Edmonton Park Maps

Edmonton’s 124 Grand Market Opens for its Summer season

A staple of the West Edmonton Summer scene since 2012, the 124 Grand Market returned for  it’s 2019 season on 9th May, the warmest day of the year with the first Thursday Market and the lure of eclectic food truck cuisine and local vendors is enough for an early office exit.

Under sunny skies with the mercury peaking at 21 Celsius, Edmonton’s Public Market as it bills itself showcases quality, locally farmed and focused products and supports growing small businesses in and around Edmonton. 

One of those local vendors is farmer Brian Wilson of Dawn Agri. Ltd, a Camrose-area farm who sells his free range non-GMO, soy free pesticide free, and herbicide free fresh farm eggs.

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Brian, who is no relation to the Beach Boys founder of the same name although probably hears Pet Sounds on his farm,  explained that most chicken feed contains soy which is transferred to the eggs in concentrations of up to 5-percent, enough to affect those with soy sensitivities or allergies. As I am always eating eggs for breakfast, I picked up a dozen of the extra large brown eggs at a price not much more than the generic white eggs sold at the local supermarket.

A popular tent is Bent Stick Brewing, a local Edmonton nano-brewery with a dare to be different mantra and palpable passion for beer. Pick up a few of the 650-ml beer bottles of brew such as Four-Thirty PM Stout or my favorite the Wizard Device Belgium Amber. And yes, samples are available.

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Among the rotating line-up of food trucks is Little Village, the freewheeling Greek eatery (try  their lamb & potatoes covered with tzatziki) or Meat Street Pies which Specializes in baked-on-board their Partridge Family-like multi-coloured food truck ethnic pies, pasties and patties, gluten free & veggie options.

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Each week, a new crop of vendors (think food trucks, artisans, produce and prepared food) hits the market, so no two weeks will be the same.

Thursdays on 108 Avenue & 124 Street from 4:00 PM-8:00 PM. Enjoy live music, performances, food trucks, local growers, bakers, makers, and kids programming including a Little Beans Program for the young ones.

The 2019 Season will run outdoors from May 9 to the Harvest Thanksgiving Market October 10.

Thursday Market
Thursdays from May 9 – October 10, 2019
4:00 PM – 8:00 PM
108 Avenue & 124 Street

Sunday Market
Sundays from June 2 – September 29
11:00 AM – 3:00 PM
102 Avenue & 124 Street

Resort Review: Riu Palace Mexico – Playa Del Carmen, Mexico

Located in the upscale gated residential, resort and luxury golf club community of Playacar 3 kilometers south of Playa Del Carmen, Mexico the  434-room Riu Palace Mexico will delight beach lovers with its stunning stretch of sand while its extensive all-inclusive amenities are outstanding if not quite palatial.

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My first impression of the family-friendly Riu Palace Mexico is one of loud Las Vegas-like luxury with a soaring lobby adorned with acres of marble and a purple design theme that runs throughout the resort following an extensive 2012 renovation. Garish may not be the right word and too harsh a critique but ‘understated elegance’ isn’t how I’d describe the Riu Palace Mexico.

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A welcome drink at check-in is always a nice touch but less so is having to wear a plastic wristband for the duration of the stay as this is becoming increasingly rare at luxury all-inclusive resorts.

The assigned room 2134 is a second floor Junior Suite at the end of the accommodation building nearest the beach and features two double beds and a lower level loveseat and desk with handy outlet to use or recharge devices. The complimentary Wi-Fi for up to 4 devices with the username and password  included in the welcome packet given to guests upon check-in.

A light cotton sheet was all that the firm but comfortable beds are fitted with but unless you set the air conditioning to deep freeze level it should be all that’s needed.  A ceiling fan is a good alternative to cool the space enough without cranking up the AC.

I did appreciate the heavy drapes blocked out more Mexican sunlight  than I expected allowing this light sensitive sleeper to sleep in past dawn as is rarely the case at most tropical hotels & resorts.

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The open concept bathroom with a jetted tub may in the middle of the room not be to everyone’s liking however the vanity with dual sinks did come in handy. The toilet is hidden in a small water closet behind a white door and while not roomy serves its purpose.

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The large shower stall with shower wand and rainfall shower head is behind a frosted glass door and purple glass tiles but has only one small light so I found it on the dark side in the morning with the drapes pulled.

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There is a wall-mounted multipurpose body wash and shampoo but extra lotion, shampoo and conditioner on the vanity.

One brand trademark of Riu resorts is what I call the “medicine cabinet”, a wall-mounted liquor dispenser just above the coffeemaker and mini-bar stocked daily with cans of beer and soda.

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The view from the smallish balcony with two plastic chairs of the central courtyard with reflecting pools and fountains is good but because there is a set back of the accommodation from the swimming pools and beach the resort doesn’t have ocean view rooms or suites.

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The room does offer a large laptop friendly wall safe in the closet and plenty of hangars and drawers to hold all my tropical beach and resort wear.

A big screen TV has dozens of channels and even some in English but it was barely on the whole four night stay as there are more than enough activities and evening entertainment around the grounds to keep me occupied.

There are some room quirks I found such as an array of light switches everywhere but it’s comfortable and user-friendly enough to serve as a good base. Hallways in the block-long accommodation buildings do amplify sounds but an absence of loud late night revelers made for very good sleep quality.

The biggest deciding factor about the room is its modern open concept so for those wanting an enclosed bathroom and a more traditional design the Riu Palace Riviera Maya is a few hundred meters down the beach .

Playacar Beach is miles long and deep with a gorgeous grove of towering palm trees and plenty of shady lounge chairs for everyone.

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This was my favorite spot between the resort pools and the waters edge as it was an uncrowded and quiet oasis visiting only occasionally by waiters taking drink orders and the odd brown agouti, a large but timid rodent relative of the guinea pig found throughout Central and  South America.

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photo by author

The Sargassum seaweed that has fouled Caribbean beaches in recent years has washed up in the Playacar beaches making swimming in the sea impractical for all but an intrepid few. The ankle deep brown plants are removed by resort staff daily by hand and skid-steer loader but there’s only so much that can be done to keep up with the volume that washes up all along the Riviera Maya.

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The Riu Palace Mexico’s pools are clustered just off the beach with two pools, one adult only and the other family friendly, flanking a central pool with a swim-up bar that comes complete with tiled lounge chairs, stools and a  long pool table.

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photo by author

I noticed an innovative sun shade design in the metal trellises around the main pools with a screen that could be opened or closed like a window blind to allow or block the sun from guests occupying the loungers.


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It wasn’t too hard to find a spot by the pools or beach although inevitably there were the early risers who reserved their spots early in the morning.

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One disappointment for me was the lack of a quiet adult pool as a DJ stand was set up between the two main pools at the El Palmeral swim-up pool bar with the tunes going throughout the day but for those who like lots of pool games and music this active environment would be to their liking.

A central plaza served as the evening entertainment zone with a variety of local and imported bands entertaining the assembled guests. One Cubano band was a particular favorite.

 

Some resorts I’ve stayed at leave printed daily activities calendar in each guest room however the Riu has several touch screen information kiosks in the main building and lobby.

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The main buffet restaurant Don Julian is open for breakfast 7 – 11 AM and for supper 6:30 – 10 PM.  I liked that diners could choose between an indoor and covered outdoor patio section.

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The beef tenderloin I had at the fusion restaurant Krystal Restaurant was among the best main courses I’ve had at an all-inclusive but the same can’t be said however about the chocolate  dessert calzone on another night at the Italian La Dolce Vita Restaurant as the dough was too  thick to consume with a fork. Maybe I should’ve opted for the more traditional tiramisu.


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photo by author

The steak at the beachfront Steak House Guacamole was tasty but a little overdone (more well done than the medium I’d ordered) while I ran out of time to try the Japanese Miyagi and Mexican La Bodega specialty restaurants.

The family-friendly Riu Palace Mexico does offer a supervised kids activity play place called Riu Land which comes complete with outdoor kiddie pool and indoor kid’s club.

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photo by author

Guests of the two palace resorts in theory have access to the facilities at the five others adjacent or nearby Riu resorts however upon check-in the Hotel Riu Lupita was crossed off the resort map (see the resort complex map here) and was advised that we needed to stay within our own resort for specialty restaurant and morning buffet breakfast dining.

I visited the adjacent Hotel Riu Yucatan which was hotel chain’s first property in Mexico when it opened in 1997 and underwent its own renovation in 2013 and found the main pools near the beach quite crowded but there is an uncrowded quiet pool just off the resort’s main lobby. The resort has a number of individual walk-up villas instead of the large “U” shaped main building and accommodation wings as at the Palace resorts. The inter-resort exchange privileges are a perk better utilized on longer stays.

My stay at the Riu Palace Mexico was very enjoyable as I was able to find a quiet beach lounge chair in which to devour a few paperback books and while away the first few days doing almost nothing. I’d rate this as a solid four plus star all-inclusive resort but it just doesn’t compare to the true five-star resorts that aren’t far away within the Riviera Maya corridor.

Find a Riu Palace Mexico resort map here.

Pros

  • Miles of glorious white sand beach
  • Four swimming pools including one for adults only with swim-up bar
  • Kids’ club, playground, and swimming pool
  • Renovated rooms have liquor dispensers and jetted tubs
  • One buffet and five specialty restaurants and seven lounges and bars
  • Exchange privileges with other neighboring Riu resorts
  • 24-hour all-inclusive plan
  • Live entertainment in a central courtyard
  • Complimentary Wi-Fi throughout the resort

Cons

  • Lack of a quiet adult pool
  • Bathrooms with a modern open concept may not be to all guests liking
  • Seaweed on the beach
  • Plastic wristbands
  • Big rooms, small balconies

 

 

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Ek’ Balam ruins and cenote swim day-trip from Playa Del Carmen, Mexico

An adventure appetizer with a Mayan culture main course jumped out at me from the day-tour menu while researching options during an all-inclusive resort holiday in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico and this moveable feast of a fun-filled day was the highlight of the trip!

Friends recommended I bypass the crush of the crowds at the Chichen Itza Mayan ruins and head instead to Ek’ Balam, a Mayan city that hits its zenith long before its more famous neighbor and the advice was on the money with the bonus being a second stop for a swim in the cool, crystal clear waters of the largest cenotes in the Yucatan.

The USD$120 advertised tour price on Cancun Vacations Experts is more than I expected to pay but as it includes resort pick-up and drop-off and a buffet lunch along with park entrance fees I confirmed a reservation for a friend and I but had two surprises come the tour date and time. Despite booking with Cancun Vacation Experts an Alltournative tour bus  came to collect us at the appointed hour and the tour leader Irvin also advised that his company was the tour provider regardless of who the tour was booked through. He also said that the itinerary as shown online with the Ek’ Balam visit in the morning followed by the Cenote Maya Native Park stop in the early afternoon was being reversed for tour company logistical reasons. A few passengers myself included wondered aloud about the change of plans which meant a morning swim and walk through the ruins in the heat of the afternoon but thanks to a partly cloudy day the concerns proved unfounded.

Cenote Maya Native Park is a two-hour, 170 kilometer journey due east of Playa Del Carmen near the town of Valladolid and a warm welcome from a Mayan shaman awaited us when we entered the jungle. As cenotes are considered scared places in popular Mayan culture, the shaman’s blessing ceremony gives permission for guests to enter and wishes them Malo Kin, or ‘good day’ in the Mayan language.

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The park star attraction is the Ik Kil Cenote which is the largest in the Yucatan and arguably one of the most beautiful cenote in Mexico measuring 60 meters in diameter with a water depth of  40 meters.  The stories of human sacrifice to the rain god who filled the sacred cenote ran through my head as I geared up to rappel the 26 meters from the rim to the cool waters below.

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The rappel was an adrenaline-pumping way to reach water level and I was happy to overcome my fear of heights however for those unwilling or unable to make this kind of entrance there’s a wooden staircase available.

The cenote is almost completely shaded from the Mayan sun and so the waters are cool and clear having been filtered through layers of limestone. The green tint makes for a magical feel of this cathedral sized cave.

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There are a number of diving platforms within the cenote as well as  a short zip-line.

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After playing in the water, a traditional Mayan lunch complete with handmade tortillas awaits visitors.

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The sturdy lunch after a morning of activities was enjoyed, especially the chicken and orange coloured honey potatoes.

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The meal excludes beer which is available for USD$5 and despite the premium price I felt a small reward was in order so enjoyed a cold bottle of the local Cerveza Montejo.

Park photographers snap your picture a number of times during your visit which are available for sale but at USD$16 for one souvenir action shot and $50 for a DVD with up to a dozen photos was too pricey for my liking and passed. I wore a GoPro HERO5 Session camera mounted on a head strap as only actions cams with either head or chest mounts are permitted in the cenote.

An hour drive away are the Mayan ruins of Ek’ Balam, a Mayan city dating as far back as 100 BC but  whose zenith was reached between 700-1,200 BC. Ek ‘ Balam, Mayan for ‘black jaguar’, is comprised of 45 structures which were lost to the jungle until the late 1800’s when rediscovered by French explorer and archaeologist Désiré Charnay but not fully excavated until a century later.

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The Alltournative guides explained that the dominant structures in all Mayan cities are mistakenly called pyramids but as they lack a triangular shape that converges into a single peak should instead be referred to as temples.

Structure 1 or the Acropolis stands 32 meters high and its top level may be reached by climbing 106 steep stone steps making it unique as most other prominent Mayan sites in the Yucatan including Chichen Itza may no longer be climbed.

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The climb to the summit of the temple affords a memorable view over the tree tops of the Mayan jungle and an excellent view of the site below.

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On a clear day the tops of the temples of Coba and Chichen Itza can be seen in the distance but I failed to spot them as the clouds covered the horizon.

The temple, which was an earthen mound until excavations began in 1998, is believed to  contain the tomb of Ukit Kan Leʼk Tokʼ, an important Mayan ruler, and about halfway up the structure – a welcome spot to catch your breath during the climb – the intricate carving that adorns the tomb facade can be seen. The main tomb entrance is carved to resemble the mouth of a jaguar reminding all of the ruler’s power.

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There’s a good view of the temple from the Oval Palace near the Entrance Arch to the site.

photo by author

The 2-hour visit to Ek’ Balam includes a guided visit and free time and was enough to take it all in and not feel rushed. While an estimated 2.1 million people visited Chichen Itza in 2017 by comparison a tiny fraction of that number experience Ek’ Balam annually and during my visit an inexact head count found no more than 40 visitors and guides. For those history and culture buffs wanting to walk and climb ancient Mayan ruins while avoiding the crowds at other sites I’d highly recommend visiting Ek’ Balam.

Alltournative tour leader Irvin talks a little about what makes this day tour unlike others.

video by author

Irvin provided an excellent introduction into the Mayan culture and  I appreciated his approachable and personable tour leader style as it made it seem that our small group of eight  was travelling with him rather than his simply being our driver/guide. His choice of classic 80’s and 90’s tunes during the longer drives between Playa Del Carmen and the Yucatan sites was music to my old ears and is another reason why I enjoyed the day tour so much. The combination of the active adventure at the cenote and history lesson at Ek’ Balam was a perfect balance so would highly recommend Alltournative for this an other Yucatan tours.

Midnight Market at Edmonton’s Polar Park Brewing Company

The opportunity to sample the beer Edmonton’s soon-to-be newest microbrewery while supporting local artists proved too much for me to resist so I snapped up a ticket to the Polar Park Brewing Company Midnight Market held at their off-Whyte Avenue headquarters.

The Bee-Bell Bakery was an Edmonton institution for 50-years until its 2013 closure but after a spell of idleness the building has been converted into a brewery which opens to the public in May and there could hardly be a better facility for a microbrewery with the sturdy red brick building’s second floor outdoor patio offering thirsty patrons a lofty locale to soak up Summer a few blocks south of the popular Whyte Avenue, an epicenter of many festivals, most notably the Edmonton International Fringe Festival which is the oldest and largest fringe theatre festival in North America.

photo by author

If the Polar Park name sounds somewhat familiar to those of a certain vintage it’s because the name was used by Al Oeming when he relaunched his Alberta Game Farm which he operated in the Edmonton area for four decades until its 1999 closure. At it’s height the park was the largest private game park in North America housing more than 3,000 animals and 166 species.  There’s more about the Brewery’s name and family heritage from Al Oeming’s grandson and brewery co-founder Robert Oeming in this video.  The  brewery pays homage to it family history on its website using the slogan “From Bears to Beers”.

On tap for Eventbrite ticket holders for this exclusive seek peek is an IPA brewed off-site at the nearby Situation Brewing and speaks to the collaborative spirit of the burgeoning  Alberta craft beer scene. While I normally avoid IPA’s as most are uber-hoppy this brew didn’t assault my taste buds and went down well while waltzing around the dozen local vendors on hand selling their wares which ranged from designer cakes and cupcakes to  perogies.

photo by author

One artist demonstrating her time-honoured traditional wood block print making is printmaker Zhuyin Sarah Zhao who described the painstaking process to carve out of the intricate design which is pressed onto rice paper as shown in this video.

photo by author

The first of 16 limited edition 8″ x 10″ prints I purchased will be framed and mounted in my home as a thing of beauty for myself and guests to admire and remind me of my travels in Asia.

The Friday night event served to whet my appetite for the official opening of Polar Park Brewing as the sneak peek reinforced the local roots the company has set down which bodes well for its long-term outlook.

Hearty Edmontonians Gather to Celebrate Lunar New Year Celebrations

An arctic air mass that had parked itself over much of Western Canada couldn’t keep a small band of spectators away from the annual lunar new year celebrations held in Edmonton’s so called Chinatown North, the area north of the traditional Chinatown around Jasper Avenue and 97th Street that grew with waves of Chinese and Asian immigrants in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s.

With day time temperatures hovering in the low -30’s Celsius with windchill, the outdoor celebrations went in a decidedly different direction with civic dignitaries, performers and spectators alike all huddled in the Pacific Rim Mall until showtime. A delicious detour while awaiting the festivities proved to be the Dynasty Century Palace restaurant, well known for its Dim Sum.

photo by author

This lunar new year is the 4716th Chinese year and is the Year of the Pig, the twelfth of the 12-year cycle of animals which appear in the Chinese zodiac related to the Chinese calendar.  While the pig isn’t thought to be a smart but lazy animal in China on the positive side, it behaves itself, harms no others, and can bring affluence to people and so the year is regarded as bringing wealth.

The dragon dance is most often performed at new year’s as dragons are seen to bring good luck to people and that the longer the dragon in the dance the more luck it will bring to the whole community.


video by author

The lion dance is another traditional Chinese dance performed major holidays such as the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) for good luck, as it is believed that the lion is an auspicious animal. Members of Edmonton’s Canadian Ging Wu Kung Fu Martial Arts Association performed the lion dance.

video by author

Lighting firecrackers is another major custom as it’s said to scare off evil spirits and celebrate the coming of the New Year. I braved the wicked wind get up close to the hanging strands of firecrackers, a little too close as flying debris came my way but luckily caused no lasting damage.

video by author

To many an Occidental eye the annual celebrations may seem exclusively Chinese however the lunar new year holiday is observed throughout Asia as its known as Eumnyeok Seollal in Korea and Tet Nguyen Dan, or simply Tet and other events to mark the special occasion were held around Edmonton. I promised to attend more events marking this Oriental occasion next year on the condition the weather gods favored Edmonton with warmer weather.

 

Lost luggage: what happens to your baggage after check-in

While it’s been years since I checked a piece of baggage on any of my trips every year millions of travellers still pay for the service and every year millions of bags go missing but how they are handled or mishandled is not something passengers normally see.

It’s worth noting that airline information company SITA says in it’s annual Baggage Report  that of the 4.65 billion bags checked on all world airlines only 6 bags per 1,000 are mishandled and of this number over 99-percent is returned within 48-hours with the remainder unable to be reunited with their owners who are due compensation from the airlines as prescribed in the Montreal Convention, a 1999 multinational civil aviation treaty.

Thanks to advancements in technology passengers are 70-percent less likely to lose their bag than was the case a decade ago and it’s this new technology that lead the International Air Transport Association (IATA)  to adopt Resolution 753 which mandates airlines track bags at four key points in its journey.

For a behind-the-scenes journey of checked bags Global News has an excellent in-depth look in this video.

A short walk to The End of the World

Edmonton’s scenic river valley has a number of panoramic view points, some official and others not so I was interested to learn that one popular perch that was in the latter category joined the former.

‘The End of the World’ is the informal name given to a look-out high above the North Saskatchewan River steps from the tony Saskatchewan Drive in Edmonton’s upscale Belgravia neighborhood that became a notorious hang-out and party place for those wanting to soak in the sweeping views of the city’s west end from a crumbling concrete retaining wall of the decommissioned Keillor Road that served as an unofficial  observation deck.

Despite ‘No Trespassing’ signs locals made their way to the point leaving their litter in the process which together with the safety aspect of potential falls from the steep cliff without railings and an unstable slope prompted city officials to close access and undertake a $1.5-million dollar project to both make the point safe for visitors while increasing accessibility from Saskatchewan Drive.

City of Edmonton artist rendering

Renamed Keillor Point in honour of Dr. Frederick Keillor, a medical doctor and World War I veteran who became an Edmonton city councillor, the new and improved scenic view point features both gravel trail and staircase access and a metal viewing platform.

When they initially conceived the project the city acknowledged that the riverbank is still moving but will monitor the motion and close the site should it be felt to be unsafe.

photo by author

photo by author

Even a cool breeze on a December day couldn’t take away from the majesty of the view which is one I hope other Edmontonians and visitors can experience for themselves.

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