Canadian Wanderer

Travel plans, thoughts & lessons

Author: Canadian Wanderer (page 1 of 22)

Maximum Minnie; 36-hours in magical Minneapolis

After connecting countless times through Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) I finally found a way to experience the “biggest underestimated place”  for myself and came away loving this corner of the country.

Minneapolis developed around Saint Anthony Falls, the highest waterfall on the Mississippi River and a source of power for its early forestry industry before becoming the flour milling capital of the world as covered in this blog article.  While Edmonton lacks waterfalls, I noted many similarities with Minnesota’s largest city as a river runs through and dominates each city, former riverside industrial areas have been converted to pubic trail networks, and a large university campus lies close to the downtown core.

One of the landmarks worth visiting on the University of Minnesota campus – home of the Golden Gophers  football team – is the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum named after a Minneapolis native, entrepreneur, and noted philanthropist. The teaching museum’s glimmering exterior was designed by the internationally acclaimed Canadian-born architect Frank O. Gehry and offers free admission  to  university students and visitors alike in an effort to make the arts easily accessible.

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While not known as a music town in quite the same way as Memphis, Nashville or New Orleans Minneapolis is home to the iconic live music mecca First Avenue & 7th St Entry a former former Greyhound bus station made famous in the 1984 semi-autobiographical movie “Purple Rain” by native son Prince.

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Shot on a shoestring budget of $7-million dollars, Purple Rain went on to gross almost ten times that at the box office making Prince an international superstar and the venue a must-see for visitors to Minneapolis.

There are over 400 artists who have a star at First Avenue with another 96 blank, ready for when it’s time to paint on a new name. I walked along spotting names I hadn’t expected to see including U2, INXS, The Buzzcocks, and Los Lobos but there’s a full list here to browse all the artists.

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As I was admiring the impressive list of music acts acknowledged with stars on the wall, a local couldn’t help commenting on my Rush t-shirt and his appreciation for the legendary Canadian rockers who built a loyal following in the U.S. with decades of touring. Music really is universal.

One of Minneapolis’ oldest and most popular parks features the majestic 53-foot Minnehaha Falls which attracts more than 850,000 visitors every year. The name Minnehaha comes from the Dakota language meaning  waterfall but the popular translation of “laughing waters” comes from a felicitous, but too literal Anglophone translation of “ha ha”. New England poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, gave this Minneapolis waterfall national fame in the Song of Hiawatha, although he never saw the falls he wrote of in 1853.


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The Midtown Global Market is an internationally-themed public market housed in the former Sears, Roebuck and Company Mail-Order Warehouse and Retail Store which was built in 1928 and in use until abandoned in 1994 before its rebirth a decade later as a multipurpose commercial space.

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The market is a deeply diverse destination with a craft brewery, shops selling locally made goods and food stalls and restaurants serving cuisine from almost every point on the compass including  Indian, Mexican, Moroccan, BBQ and Middle Eastern. Safari Express specializes in Somali cuisine and is home of the camel burger for the more adventurous diners.

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photo by author

A local landmark listed on the U.S. Register of Historic Places, the Midtown Global Market is a bit of a detour from the Lake Street/Midtown station on the Metro Blue Line and from the downtown but 1.5 million people visit Midtown Global Market each year because its a cultural journey that’s run by the people for the people as all businesses are locally-owned and operated and the crafts made by local artists. Think global while shopping local.

Weather permitting, walk through the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden  open daily year-round  and the adjacent Walker Art Center.  The 40 permanent sculptures  are scattered throughout the 11-acre garden and include the oft photographed Spoonbridge and Cherry Pop Art  piece by Claes Oldenburg.

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Nearby is a 25-foot blue rooster sculpture titled Hahn/Cock by the German artist Katharina Fritsch whose name is a double-entendre.

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There’s plenty of public art to be found around Minneapolis including a  pair of colourful giant downtown building murals focusing on Minnesota music legends Bob Dylan and Prince whose lyrics to his Purple Rain song ‘Baby I’m A Star’ are referenced by a comic book character.

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The graceful curves of the Stone Arch Bridge span the mighty Mississippi River just below the Saint Anthony Falls and affords outstanding river valley views.  The former railroad bridge,  Minneapolis’ oldest bridge,  was completed in 1883 and served to import raw grain and export milled flour that helped make Minneapolis the flour milling capital of the world, a title it held from 1880 to 1930. The wide bridge span makes for an ideal modern pedestrian and bike path that’s part of a river valley trail system.

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Looming over the Stone Arch Bridge is the ruins of the Washburn A Mill, the flagship mill of the Washburn-Crosby Co. (later General Mills) which when it was built in 1880 was the largest and most technologically advanced flour mill in the world. After being shut down in 1965 and sitting abandoned for decades, the former mill suffered a devastating fire in 1991 but from the ashes of its ruins was rebuilt as the Mill City Museum and opened to the public in 2003.

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One of the city’s best visitor values is the Metro Transit All-Day Visitor Pass which allows unlimited travel on the light rail and bus network and may be purchased at the Meet Minneapolis Visitor Center which is open daily except Sundays.  There’s a  warmth in the welcome from the visitor center staff who are eager to offer sightseeing suggestions and provide helpful information and maps.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Minneapolis Craft Beer Scene

After a recent visit to Minneapolis and drinking in the burgeoning craft beer scene around the city and state of Minnesota, I couldn’t help but note the similarities to Edmonton and Alberta which is also in the midst of a beer boom.

Historically, Minnesota breweries were not permitted to serve pints of their beers on site but thanks to the so called Surly Bill signed into law by Minnesota Governor mark Dayton in May, 2011 brewers may apply for a license to serve their own brews on site. The legislation was dubbed the Surly Bill as it allowed Surly Brewing Co. to serve pints at their proposed $30 million destination brewery located in the Minneapolis Prospect Park neighborhood which opened in December, 2014. The revamped rules however are not without their limits as I found microbreweries are not able to sell other brewers beers stifling the collaborative spirit shared among the craft beer community.

In  comparison, Alberta only granted a brewery license to those able to prove an ability to brew 500,000 liters of beer, a regulation which kept smaller micro-brewers on the sidelines until it was was scrapped December 3, 2013 leading to a landslide of new breweries throughout the province.

My self-guided Minneapolis craft brewery tour extended over two days and took me to eleven of the city’s best breweries.

Surly Brewing Co.

Surly Brewing Co.’s production facility doubles as a brewpub with restaurant and while out of Minneapolis’ downtown core is well worth the detour, especially on a warm Summer day as when I visited as the ground floor restaurant is open to the outdoor beer garden.

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The beer factory is a short walk from the Prospect Park stop on the Green Line  which connects Minneapolis’ downtown with the University of Minnesota and the twin city of St. Paul.  Visitors can buy a $5 unlimited metro pass which is huge value considering that individual one-way journeys are up to $2.50.

The craft beer menu offers something for everyone but the brew that built Surly is the Furious IPA, a strong  (6.7% ABV) amber coloured ale that blends American hops and Scottish malt to create an IPA unlike any other I’ve tried as it has a fuller favor with hints or caramel and citrus and without the sharp hoppy profile of most IPA’s.

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The super long bar is along one wall of the ground floor restaurant which serves hearty pub grub staples including burgers, BBQ and sandwiches while the second floor eatery serves only artisan pizzas.

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Visitors to Surly may join a free tour of the brewery which can be confirmed online and include a guided visit to the brewhouse, fermentation cellar, and packaging hall.  Free samples are included on an upper platform that looks down on the rolling canning line which cranks out 3500 cans per hour.

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Surly has expanded their distribution from the state of Minnesota to the upper Midwest and Canada so can’t wait to see Furious IPA at a local beer store one day soon.

Inbound Brew Co.

Located in the North Loop neighborhood in a former recycling warehouse, Inbound opens its doors in the warmer months to offer outdoor patio seating as well as German beer hall bench seating indoors. Popular with locals and their dogs, the craft brewery and taproom features a rotating food truck food schedule. Parked outside during my visit was the pink Market BBQ food truck.

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The vibe is super casual and local with small groups of friends hoisting a few after work and beyond myself wasn’t overrun with thirsty tourists. My Inbound beer of choice was their wheat ale as I’ve become partial to Kölsch and German style wheat beers.

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Fulton Beer

Claiming the title of Minnesota’s first legal taproom opened the taproom in 2012, Fulton Beer has produced some of Minnesota’s most popular beers with such saucy names as Sweet Child of Vine IPA, Worthy Adversary, Mama Bravo and my favorite The Lonely Blond.

The brewery is located in the heart of the Warehouse District near many of its fellow microbreweries making a self-guided pub crawl convenient.

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A shiny vintage 1969 Airstream camper was re-purposed as a food trailer offering solid pub grub including the classic Canadian poutine!

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I couldn’t resist a pint of the breweries signature Lonely Blonde, a mix of German hops and American wheat for a fine, balanced blonde ale.

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The Fulton patio is a perfect perch on a warm Summer evening to watch the world go by.

 

Clockwerks Brewing

Housed in Downtown Minneapolis century-old brick warehouse is Clockwerks Brewing, a microbrewery and taproom with a passion for session beers — beers containing  no more than 5 % ABV with a balance between malt and hops to create a clean finish  and high drinkability.

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I sampled the Clockwerk Orange, a very pale Belgian style witbier with hints of orange as well as pepper and cloves making for a solid Summer light beer.

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In the back corner of Clockwerks there’s an original City Billiards pool table, a tribute to the space’s previous tenant.

 

 

Eastlake Craft Brewery

I stumbled upon Eastlake Craft Brewery while visiting the Midtown Global Market , a vibrant internationally themed market with stalls selling food & crafts from around the world, and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to sample one of their brews, Mendoza Line.

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Eastlake is surrounded by a multitude of diverse food stalls so whether you’re in the mood for a vegan Indurrito, a camel burger, sushi, pad thai, falafel, a cheese steak torta, or a custom slice of pizza you can bring it in to the taproom which occupies a corner of the former Sears & Roebuck Building, a historic registered 1928 local landmark.

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Freehouse Brewery

Freehouse is a breed apart from the other Minneapolis breweries I visited as it’s as much a restaurant as it is a fully functioning brewpub with food as central to its mission as the beer brewed onsite.

Also unique is that beyond it’s own core four beers –  a Kölsch style ale, an IPA, a brown ale and a stout – Freehouse serves up the local competition in the belief that the quality of the ingredients and care of their brewmaster will set their brews apart.

Unlike all taprooms I’ve encountered in Minneapolis or elsewhere, Freehouse opens it doors weekdays at 7 AM and 7:30 AM on weekends offering a cooked to order hearty breakfast with or without beer.

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The interior of Freehouse is wonderfully rustic with exposed brick walls and ceiling duct work as the landmarked 1911 Loose-Wiles Building was once home to the Loose-Wiles Biscuit Company before a complete 2013 renovation and restoration.

 

Day Block Brewing Co.

Day Block Brewing takes it’s name from the historic 1883 Day Block Building it’s called home since 2014 and is one the few breweries in the downtown core offering food, beer and a full-service bar.

I tried a pint of Frank’s Red Ale and learned the name is a tribute to Frank’s Plumbing, which occupied the building for about forty years .

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Given it’s location almost in the shadow of the new U.S. Bank Stadium in downtown Minneapolis, home games for the Minnesota Viking NFL team see the brewery fill to overflowing so visitors wanting to avoid a sea of football fans should consult the team’s schedule for home game dates.

Finnegans

One of the few Minneapolis breweries not built in a historic building, Finnegans Brew Co. moved into its downtown digs in March 2018 but has been on the local beer scene since its founding in 2000.

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What makes Finnegans unique is what it calls barstool philanthropy with all of the profits going to feeding the hungry through the Finnegans Community Fund which works with local food bank partners.

Finnegans has a large taproom indoors plus a back patio open in warmer weather and food is provided by the Tavola Kitchen, a full-service restaurant located next door.

Town Hall Brewery

Located at Seven Corners between the University of Minnesota and downtown Minneapolis, Town Hall Brewery opened in a century old heritage building in 1997 at a time when only 20 breweries were operating in the state and has gone on to produce more Great American Beer Festival award-winning brews than any other Minnesota brewery,.

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photo by author

 

Gluek’s Restaurant  & Bar

German Jewish immigrant Gottlieb Gluek established his first Minneapolis brewery in 1857, one year before Minnesota was declared a state so has a brewing lineage like few others. Its downtown Minneapolis brewpub has all the feel of a German beer hall with its dark wood, sturdy brick walls and historic company back & white photos displayed with pride.

I was about 20 minutes ahead of the normal 11 AM weekday opening time when Gluek’s Bar and Restaurant Owner Lee Holcomb took pity on me and invited me inside and poured  me a beer while he began his morning routine, one he’s likely been through many times having operated the bar since 1961!

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photo by author

Gluek brews its beer at Fulton Brewing which ironically is under a mile from the site of its original northeast Minneapolis brewery.

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No visit to Minneapolis breweries would be complete without a stop at Gluek’s as it feels like a step back in time to at least the 1960’s.

Modist Brewing Co. 

In an industry replete with rule breakers and risk takers, Modist Brewing has plotted its own course to brew beers starting with  flavors rather than follow a prescribed pattern from traditional styles of beers.  This creativity is aided by the areas first mash filter which allows the use of any grain in any percentage while using a fraction of the water and energy of a traditional brewery.

The brewery has a bright, modern interior with itself is a departure from the raw, industrial spaces many smaller breweries embrace. I opted for a pint of the Supra Deluxe, a crisp Japanese style lager brewed with 40% rice.

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One other unique aspect of Modist as bartender James explained is the policy against offering patrons samples of its beers in the belief that little samples over a whole year add up to large amounts.

 

Mill City Museum Minneapolis; The Power of Flour

Minneapolis’ Mill City Museum is like few other museums as it was built within the ruins of the Washburn A Mill, the flagship flour mill of the Washburn-Crosby Co.  which later evolved into the household name we know today as General Mills and when completed in 1880 became the largest and most technologically advanced flour mill in the world powered by the swift current of  St. Anthony Falls on the mighty Mississippi.

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The millers at the Washburn mills perfected a new process for milling in the 1870s, a revolution that made fine wheat flour available to the general public for the first time and along with other mills including the Pillsbury A Mill helped Minneapolis became the flour milling capital of the world from 1880 until 1930. That preeminence ebbed post World War I as flour production in Minneapolis declined as flour milling technology no longer depended on water power.

An 1879 boxcar shows how railroads transported wheat to the mills, and flour to market.

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There’s a interactive display of the many commercial products including Biquick and Betty Crocker, a fictional character created in 1921 that became so popular that in 1945 Fortune magazine magazine named her the second most popular woman in America after First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

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The Flour Tower is an industrial size elevator converted to seat museum guests who to travel back through time with stops at eight levels with each displaying the mill machines and narrated stories of the workers who manned them. Visitors remain on the elevator the whole time so aren’t able to get off and explore each level however are given a very realistic look at the noisy and often dangerous process workers experienced while working in the mill through the use of historic film and photos and the dramatic use of lighting, sound, and special effects. The interactive ride is included in the museum entry fee however visitors need to ask for a time-specific reservation at the ticket or information desk.

All the displays of food aren’t edible however visitors can cook something up in  the Baking Lab which includes cooking demonstrations by history players, museum guides dressed in period costumes who portray real people to pass along insights of the mill in their time.

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Kids will likely enjoy the Water Lab, an interactive display showing how the power of the falling water of St. Anthony Falls powered the city’s logging and lumber industry and later, the flour milling industry.

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Any visit to the Mill City Museum would be incomplete without soaking in the panoramic views of the Mississippi River, St. Anthony Falls, the historic Stone Arch Bridge, Mill Ruins Park, and the Ruin Courtyard head to the museum’s Koch Rooftop Observation Deck which is open during museum hours weather permitting. The enormity of the  mill and its industrial impact on the city landscape can be felt along with a stiff breeze from this sky high vantage point.

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The Washburn A Mill Complex kept working around the clock from it’s 1880 opening until 1965 when Generals Mills shuttered it and eight other of its oldest mills. All the machinery was left in place as the mill sat empty for a quarter century until squatters started a fire on a cold winter night in 1991 sparking a devastating blaze that almost destroyed the whole complex which was designated as a National Historic Landmark. After putting out the blaze and stabilizing the ruins, the museum opened in its current form by the Minnesota Historical Society in 2003.

The Ruin Courtyard was left as it emerged from the 1991 fire offering visitors a look at the mill foundations and machinery attached to the thick stone walls.

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Visitors exiting through the Ruin Courtyard can enjoy a view of the mill from the Stone Arch Bridge, an 1883 former railway bridge that’s been converted to a pedestrian and bike trail but remains as the only arched bridge made of stone on the entire length of the Mississippi River.

Visitors should budget about two hours to tour Mill City Museum but that’s a minimum as the wealth of displays and interactive features plus gift shop and Bushel & Peck Café are worth investing a little more time if it can be afforded.  The riverfront walking & biking trails that run below the mill are also well worth including before or after a museum visit, weather permitting.

Adult museum admission is USD$12 however there’s a $2 off coupon here valid through 31st December, 2019.

I would highly recommend Minneapolis visitors include the Mill City Museum on their sightseeing itinerary as it’s a highly interactive and informative look at how the mill powered the growth of the city to the Midwestern metropolis it is today.

 

Hotel Review: TownePlace Suites Minneapolis Downtown/North Loop

To use election analogies, there are hotels I confirm after months of careful consideration having emerged from a field of candidates as having the most positive attributes and there are others that win by acclamation for their price or location and my recent two night stay at the TownePlace Suites Minneapolis Downtown/North Loop fell into the latter category as its value for a central location proved a winning combination.

Marriott’s TownPlace Suites brand was launched in 1997 as a mid-tier, all-suite extended stay accommodation chain that’s grown to over 300 hundred locations throughout Canada & the U.S.  Each unit includes a full kitchen with small range, microwave and dishwasher plus a living room and desk with plenty of plugs for laptops and recharging devices.

The TownePlace Suites Minneapolis Downtown/North Loop is conveniently located a 10-minute walk from Target Field – home of the major league baseball’s Minnesota Twins – and the adjacent Light-rail transit (LRT) station on the Blue Line which offers a direct, 30-minute ride in from Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport (MSP) for only USD$2.00 for non peak hours while travelling between 6-9 AM & 3-6:30 PM costs an extra $0.50. The walk is through a former industrial area that’s transitioning to a hip neighborhood with a variety of shops, restaurants and craft breweries but not without some construction so be prepared to dodge a few detours. And don’t let the “North Loop” moniker fool you as locals scoff at the trendy term noting the whole area is part of the Warehouse District.

Once at the TownPlace Suites guests will find the door locked which it is 24/7 for security but a buzzer is well located and signed and once granted access you find a small lobby and front desk.

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My arrival was hours ahead of the normal 3 PM check-in but happily found my room ready so dropped my bags in room 224, a Studio with Queen bed and fully equipped kitchen complete with utensils and plates, a small range, dishwasher and full size fridge.

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The view from the room is of N. 2nd Street and the condo complex opposite and while nothing too scenic I found very little street noise filtered into the studio.

The bathroom has a tub & shower with a nice curved shower rail that means the shower curtain isn’t clinging to you while you enjoy the morning shower.  The complimentary bath products are Paul Mitchell but unlike many moderate hotel chains aren’t the wall-mounted refillable shampoo & body gel containers but the old school little plastic bottles.

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While spacious and comfortable the studio is lacking some user-friendly features such as a bathroom exhaust fan, closet safe and suffers some sound leakage through the connecting door to the next suite but luckily my neighbors weren’t late night partyers so it wasn’t a huge issue. For a property that caters to long-stay guests on business, the lack of an  in-room laptop size safe is a glaring omission that should be corrected.

The breakfast room is just off the lobby and the morning meal is served 6:30 – 9:30 AM with the early risers able to claim their preferred places.

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Beyond the coffee station, there’s a good selection of sausage rounds, scrambled eggs or mini-omeletes , cereals, bagels and bread, fresh fruit plus juice  to feed all but the most finicky of guests. It’s food, not cuisine but more than enough fuel the start to my day although I can see how it could become quickly repetitive for guests on a longer stay than my two-night duration.


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Yes, a do-it-yourself waffle maker! A variety of toppings are on hand including chocolate chips, strawberries and plain old syrup.


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While the weather was warm enough, my short stay didn’t leave enough time to take a dip in the heated outdoor pool which is open daily 9 AM – 9 PM. The pool deck is at the rear of the building beside the parking lot however does offer a scenic city skyline view.

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On-site parking is available for a fee.

For a three-star value suite hotel the TownePlace Suites Minneapolis Downtown/North Loop  delivers a comfortable stay with a convenient location within walking distance of the Minneapolis city sights and a wealth of local craft breweries so more than met my expectations.  Those guests wanting more of the boutique or upscale, full service hotel experience should look elsewhere but for cost-conscious families or extended stay singles looking for a home-base this TownePlace  is worth a look.

Pros

  • Walking distance to Target Field and Warehouse District restaurants and craft breweries
  • Breakfast included
  • Large suites with full kitchens
  • Free Wi-Fi
  • Individual unit heating & cooling controls

Cons

  • No in-room safe
  • Lack of a bathroom exhaust fan
  • Fee for parking
  • Some sound transmits through connecting door to next suite

ArtTourYEG; The Quarters

If ever there was a neighborhood that could be called “in transition” it would be an area in the shadow of Edmonton’s skyline that’s been re-branded as “The Quarters” as the city partners with private enterprise to push the ignored, somewhat seedier side of the city toward the gentrified mainstream. I joined a free lunch hour walking tour of the district sponsored by ArtTourYEG,  a project made possible by the Downtown Walkability Initiative and the Department of Sustainable Development of the City of Edmonton, and saw the area for what it is and the direction the city wants to see it go.

The Quarters became Edmonton’s first commercial district in the late 19th century as the first real business and residential zone beyond the walls of Fort Edmonton. The area occupies a 100 acre area extending from 97 Street to 92 Street, and from 103A Avenue to the top of the North Saskatchewan River Valley and takes its name from four “quarters” –  the Civic Quarter, Heritage Quarter, McCauley Quarter, and Five Corners Quarter – each with its own character. The centerpiece of the Quarters is the Armature, the first City-led “green street” pilot project that’s created a pedestrian-focused green street.

The artists rendering in the video is a reasonable facsimile of the current avenue minus the construction and midday drunkards ensconced outside the local liquor store, a reminder that some things about this part of town haven’t really changed that much despite the city’s best efforts.

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Etched into the granite at each mid-block crossing along the Armature is Derek Besant’s poem entitled Then, Here, Now  which can be can be read backwards and forwards.

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The Salvation Army’s wall has been decorated with the Edmonton Peace Mural created by both Canadian and Central American children and unveiled and unveiled to mark Change for Children who celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2001.

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Public art sprinkled throughout The Quarters includes Wild Rose by Rebecca Belmore & Osvaldo Yero which has a pair of symbols of Alberta, the wild rose mounted atop a tall lodgepole pine.

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Along the Armature are street signs with both the original street & avenue names and current numbers and the tour guide Ian explained that the move to rename Edmonton’s streets resulted from the amalgamation of Edmonton and Strathcona in 1912 as until then street names were the sole creation of realtors which created a haphazard grid for local police and firefighters to try and navigate in emergencies. The first map with the new street numbers appears in 1913 and the street renaming process was completed in 1914

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Similar street signs may be found throughout Old Strathcona and I’ve come to appreciate the elegant way my city melds past & present in a utilitarian street sign.

There are some unique buildings along Jasper Avenue that are being preserved including Edmonton’s “flat iron” building the Gibson Block. This 1913 four-storey brick building constructed for commercial use on four city lots at the eastern edge of Edmonton’s pre-World War One commercial core was added to the register of Canadian historic places in 2005.

A few block West stands the Ernest Brown Block, another 1913 brick building which housed the studio of Ernest Brown, one of Alberta’s most famous early photographers. The facade of the original building endures with a new, thoroughly modern addition rising behind it complete with floor-to-ceiling glass offering dramatic river valley vistas.

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The Goodridge Block was completed in 1912 and housed a menswear store, barbershop, wine, liquor and cigar store, and pool hall before becoming the local landmark  W.W. Arcade hardware store, Edmonton’s largest, between 1932 – 1991.

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Upscale eatery Hardware Grill opened in 1996 after a multi-million dollar restoration of the building and earned many culinary accolades including appearing on lists ranking the best restaurants in Canada before suddenly announcing it’s permanent closure on Twitter the week after the tour.

The tour ends behind the modern Edmonton Law Courts opposite the Oil Lamp Greek Restaurant whose exterior wall has been adorned with a mural by Ian Mulder entitled ‘City Slickers’ which features the magpie, a bird residents either love or hate. I’ll admit to being in the latter category having had many a morning interrupted by the loud, incessant chatter of this scavenger bird.

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The ArtTourYEG Series is a free walking tour was made possible by the Downtown Walkability Initiative and the Department of Sustainable Development of the City of Edmonton. Other tours  cover an assortment of downtown districts and include the Jasper Ave., Capital Boulevard, and  Churchill to McKinney tours.

Flight Review: Delta Boeing 717

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If the Boeing 717 has the familiar look of the McDonnell Douglas DC-9 it’s because this twin-engine, single-aisle regional commuter aircraft began its days as a derivative of the sturdy DC-9 before being re-branded following the $13-Billion, 1997 merger of the two American aviation giants. Despite the new model name however airlines were unwilling to take a flyer on the 717 and so only 156 were built before production ended in 2006. Delta Airlines is the largest operator of Boeing 717 aircraft with 91 aircraft flying regional routes around North America making up 10% of the airline’s fleet as the time of writing.

The Economy seat lay-out is an uncommon 2 + 3 configuration with 78 main cabin Economy seats,  20 extra legroom Comfort + and 12 First Class seats in a two-by-two seat arrangement.  My airfare included complimentary advance seat assignment so I selected 16A just behind the Comfort + section on the two-seat side of the aircraft and the legroom of 31-inches was just enough for this 5-foot-10 flyer for a short sub 3-hour flight Edmonton – Minneapolis but taller travelers may want to consider paying for the upgrade to Comfort + for the extra 3-inches of seat pitch.

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When selecting an economy seat on a future Delta Boeing 717 flight, I’ll opt to sit further back as seat 26A has two windows. If having a view if important I’d recommend against assigned seats any further back as rows 28 & 29 are obscured by the fuselage-mounted engines.

The seat width of 18.1-inches is a fraction wider than newer jetliners and the leather seats comfortable enough for a shorter flight but according to this report Delta is moving ahead with plans to restrict the seat recline to two inches.

With no in-seat entertainment units, there are no under seats wiring or boxes so the foot well is large enough for a small backpack, briefcase or purse. All rows of seats include in-seat power USB and power plugs.

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The overhead bins are generous enough to hold enough bags for a full flight as I found when boarding among the last passengers in Delta’s Main 3 boarding order with only Basic economy passengers boarding later however it’s luck of the draw and I was preparing myself for a lack of bin space and being forced to check my carry-on. For those passengers not wanting to risk finding no overhead bin space upon boarding, Delta sells Priority Boarding in the Main 1 zone for USD$15 per segment but note this fee is lost if the itinerary is changed as it’s not transferable to a new flight.

With an average Boeing 717 fleet age of just over 18-years there are bound to be a few more  mechanical delays than newer aircraft as I encountered departing Minneapolis however the speedy substitution of another 717 on hand prevented it from being a lengthy delay so applauded the airline’s efforts to minimize inconvenience to passengers.

The Boeing 717 isn’t without some quirks as frequent flyers on other regional jets such as the Bombardier CRJ are likely familiar with including stooping over to access seats because of low overhead luggage bins however the Delta Airlines workhorse delivers a smooth flight and comfortable enough in-flight experience that a short flight passes quickly.  If given the choice, I’d rather fly the Embraer 190 for its increased cabin comfort however its poor cold weather record made it temperamental so the rugged 717 in an able alternative when necessary.

 

 

2019 Edmonton Craft Beer Festival; Beer Sampling Nirvana

The Edmonton Craft Beer Festival is one of the fastest growing beer festivals on the planet with over 500 brews from more than 100 breweries on tap to discover over two-days at the 2019 edition and I wanted to drink it all in one small sample at a time.

“There definitely seems to be something special going on for the festival this year,” says Alberta Beer Festivals CEO Mark Kondrat. “Every year, the Edmonton Craft Beer Festival (May 31 & June 1) has gotten bigger and better, but this year, the growth has been incredible. We’ve doubled ticket sales and we have over 125% of the exhibitors we had last year.” In its 7th year, the event has become one of the fastest growing and largest beer festivals in the world. “So much goes on at the event, it really is a festival everyone can enjoy. You don’t have to love beer to love Beerfest, and you don’t have to love every beer or spirit being sampled. The whole point is to try things you might not normally try so you can find a new favorite and have a great time!”

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I spied a $19.99 “buy one,get one free” general admission ticket promotion for the Fri., 31st May opening night that proved too hard to resist. Upon presenting your ticket at the Expo Centre venue and being scanned in, patrons are given a plastic 4-ounce tasting mini-mug but to fill ‘er up  $1 sample vouchers sold in blocks of 10 need to be purchased. Most beer samples around the cavernous convention hall are 2 tickets with food ranging from 4 to 6 tickets. I invested $30 to try an assortment of the best craft beer from all over Western Canada and consider that a bargain!

Popular local brewpub Brewsters tempted tasters with a variety of beers and while I normally favor Kolsch, wheat beers and amber ales, I went off script to try the Peanut Butter Porter whose flavor isn’t subtle as it hits you like a peanut butter sandwich between the eyes.

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There’s an event map and list of all the breweries, distilleries, food vendors and others here and they include a few quirky booths such as the Canadian Drink Mitt which is a sock with a beer holder at the end to allow thirsty drinkers to keep their hand warm in the depths of winter while still enjoying a cold beer. Perhaps a Christmas gift for the man (or women) who has everything.

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The boys of Bent Stick Brewing are all smiles as they shared their microbrewery magic with the masses. I sampled and fell for the B.S. Wit, a cloudy Belgian style wheat beer that’s the Edmonton brewery’s first canned beer. I’ll drink to that!

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Calgary-based Wild Rose Brewery paid homage to its Alberta roots with a DJ in the bed of a pick-up but after a 2019 sale to Sleeman Breweries, itself owned by Japan’s Sapporo Breweries,  it was immediately removed from the Alberta Small Brewers Association.

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Before the town of Ponoka was named for the Blackfoot word for elk it was simply identified as  Siding 14 on the Calgary-Edmonton Railway Company serving as a supply point for steam locomotives making their way between Alberta’s two main cities.  Siding 14 Brewing Company takes its name from the town’s original  name and delivered a host of choices but I settled on the Switch Point Honey Cream Ale which surprised me with its subtle flavors. I could easily make this a regular, year ’round favorite as its such a balanced beer.

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Troubled Monk Brewing shared their Red Deer-based craft brew and when asked where the brewery name originated the staff on hand hinted that it was chosen to allude to the beer history of the Belgian Trappist monk slaving away to create a beer worth celebrating.

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Speaking of monk’s, Edmonton’s Blind Enthusiasm Brewing brought their award-winning beers to the festival which include the Extra Special Monk, the very first beer brewed by the founders of this  Ritchie neighborhood brewery.

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The Alberta Small Brewers Association says 117 independent craft breweries operating in Alberta are a  35% growth since 2017 meaning the 2020 Edmonton Craft Beer Festival should be even  bigger and better and I can drink to that!

Resort Visit: The Fives Azul Beach Resort Playa Del Carmen, Mexico

To borrow a Yogi Berra quotation my recent look at The Fives Azul Beach Resort Playa Del Carmen was like Déjà vu all over again as it marked the second time I’ve seen the upscale beachfront Caribbean resort but the interval between visits long enough I didn’t recall this fact  until after entering its grounds.


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A friend who owns a villa at The Fives was kind enough to reach out to resort sales staff to arrange a visit for me while holidaying in the area but after steeping out of the cab I realized I explored the resort shortly after it opened in late 2010.  While there was enough that felt familiar there are new additions to the resort including a cluster of new villas carved out of the jungle around the central cenote that defines the resort layout.

Resort map courtesy of The Fives Azul Beach Resort

Nature and the natural world is a part of this 480-unit family friendly all-inclusive resort with frequent appearances by local spider monkeys and raccoon-like coati and other wildlife, many spotted from the wooden boardwalks than span the cenote in the middle of property.

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The main pedestrian plaza features a cluster of restaurants, shops and a Starbucks which is included in the all-inclusive dining plan.

photo by author

photo by author

On the plaza just outside the main buffet restaurant, Flavors, is a list of daily activities for adults and kids who may join the supervised activities program called Azulitos which has games and play space in the Azulitos Playhouse as well as a kids-only pool and even spa services for the little ones.

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Among the 13 buffet and À la carte restaurants is Koh Thai, an Asian influenced eatery with the choice of dining on an outdoor deck or indoors beneath a 15-foot standing Buddha in the Bangkok-inspired dining room.

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A cozy corner is Nineteen Ten, a Mexican cantina flavored bar named for the year of the outbreak of the Mexican revolution and decorated in colourful terracotta tiles offering a vast selection of tequila and mezcal from all over Mexico. Make a point to  visit this adult-only bar as its well worth a refreshment detour.

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Steps from the beach and reached by a glass elevator is the roof top Zky Bar which is an all ages sports bar and lounge until 11 PM when it becomes adult-only.

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While The Fives lacks a huge section of white sand beach, the small area it does have is organized well with two pools, an adult-only infinity pool and an adjacent all ages pool.

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Like the beach lounge chairs most of the the white fabric cabanas are available on a first come, first served basis.

photo by author

photo by author

Like other areas of the Riviera Maya which have been beset by the brown seaweed Sargassum in recent years so has The Fives been affected making beach watersports and swimming a challenge however the appearance and quantity varies from nothing to ankle deep depending upon wind, time and tide so it’s not something that can be accurately forecast prior to arrival.

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I was shown an adult-only  ‘One-bedroom Swim-up Resort Residence’ which are the newest suites featuring a king bed, his & hers vanity, a walk-in rainfall shower stall,  large walk-in closet and direct access down a few steps into the pool.

photo by author

photo by author

photo by author

photo by author

The Fives Azul Beach Resort Playa Del Carmen is just north of the city of Playa Del Carmen  offering  good access to shopping and sights but is just far enough removed to be beyond the busy tourist zone along Fifth Avenue. The variety of exotic cuisine and authentic Mexican flavours paired with larger family-friendly suites at very competitive price makes this resort a strong contender for best luxury resort value in Riviera Maya.

Pros

  • Giant rooms and suites up to three bedrooms
  • White sand beach with loungers and cabanas
  • Family friendly with extensive facilities and activities for kids including kids’ menu and cribs, cots, baby food and and baby monitors for infants
  • Seven swimming pools, including enormous main pool and kid-friendly options
  • Thirteen restaurants serving cuisine from around the world
  • Nine bars and lounges, including a couple of swim-up options
  • Free Wi-Fi throughout the resort and free international calls

Cons

  • A smallish section of beach
  • Located away from the action of Fifth Avenue (could be a pro for some)
  • Lots of kids running around might put some solos and couples off
  • At times a lack of loungers around the infinity pool
  • Newer villas a bit of a walk from the beach; golf cart rides available

 

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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photo by author

video by author

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.

video by author

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.

photo by author

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.

photo by author

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.

video by author

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.

video by author

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.

photo by author

photo by author

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.

photo by author

photo by author

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.

 photo by author

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

 

the

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