Canadian Wanderer

Travel plans, thoughts & lessons

Hotel Review: The Nines, Portland

The Nines, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Portland  is one of the city’s newest luxury hotels reborn in a historic fifteen story 1909 masterpiece which served as the flagship store and headquarters for Meier & Frank, once heralded as the largest retailer west of the Mississippi.

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According to the hotel the name “The Nines” was created to honour the building’s roots as a beacon of “dressed to the nines” fashion but it also happens to occupy the top nine floors of this  building located in a prime location on Pioneer Courthouse Square, affectionately known as Portland’s “living room” which is home to some 300 annual events.

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The bottom five floors were home to a Macy’s until early 2017 and staff indicated they would be redeveloped into mixed-use retail and office space.

The hotel’s street level entrance is only a small bell desk and a bank of elevators as the lobby is on the 8th floor.

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The lobby level is a bright, open atrium with the lead-in Superior room category having atrium views.

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The furniture mirrors the hotel decor with its hint of quirkiness but isn’t a case of form over function as the chairs and couches offer travelers a comfortable spot to meet with friends, finish some work or await room assignment at the front desk a few steps away.

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Having arrived at the hotel around Noon and requested an early check-in the front desk staff did their best to accommodate so I lounged in the Urban Farmer restaurant and bar while housekeepers worked to ready a room.

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While my Starwood Preferred Guest two night award reservation was for a lead-in Superior Room the room I was assigned, 1108, is a Deluxe City View which offered a side view of Pioneer Courthouse Square which was bedecked with a floral display as part of its  annual”Festival of Flowers”.

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The 9-foot ceilings and large picture windows help make the room seem larger than it is while the Tiffany-blue sofa lounger – which had to be 6.5-feet in length – adds splash of colour in an otherwise neutral palette.  The king bed features a tufted white headboard and luxury Egyptian linens which help make for a very restful sleep. The heavy drapes also do a very good job of darkening the room for those like me who prefer it that way.

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The luggage rack under the 50 inch flat screen TV console is a little unusual but for a short stay wasn’t an inconvenience. Free basic Wi-Fi is included and the desk has power plugs in the faux  drawers so a good place to power up the laptop or recharge guest devices.

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The sophisticated room deign continues in the large bathroom with a corner vanity and stainless steel undermount sink.  Water pressure is good but not powerful. The Nines features London’s Gilchrist & Soames BeeKind Collection of luxury toiletries which use natural ingredients that are gentler on the environment and whose net proceeds go to support honey bee sustainable pollination research at the University of California.

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The marble shower stall has wall-mounted shampoo, conditioner and shower gel dispensers in an eco-friendly effort to cut down on  the plastics used for individual containers. The shower head is good but not quite the high-end rainfall shower head expected at a five-star hotel.

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The standard mini-fridge with overpriced sodas, water , snacks and little booze bottles can be found in the room but the quirk with this model is that removing an item in the little black holders for more than 20 seconds will result in an automatic charge of that item to your room account.

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There is a little card on the shelf above the mini-bar advising guests of the quick-draw robo-fridge and noting that guests wishing a mini-fridge for personal use may have one provided for a one-time USD$20 fee.

The 15th floor Departure restaurant offers pan-Asian cuisine served in an indoor restaurant as well as in an outdoor panoramic deck with Portland city view.

Portland on a nice evening by Amber Case is licensed under CC BY- C 2.0 

A huge fitness center with a big selection of both cardio and free weight training is available to guests 24/7 but note the hotel has no pool.

Getting to The Nines from Portland International Airport (PDX) is very easy and inexpensive as the light rail MAX (Metropolitan Area Express) Red Line runs from a station adjacent to the terminal into the downtown core stopping across Pioneer Courthouse Square for only $2.50 for a 2.5-hour limit. The ride to & from the airport is roughly 35-minutes and trains run at least every 15-minutes all day, every day.

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The Nines lives up to its billing as a member of the Starwood/Marriott Luxury Collection as it blends a contemporary style and sophistication with its heritage building in an uber central downtown location within walking distance of most city sights.  Rates for the least expensive Superior room category will average USD$300 per room per night plus taxes and it’s worth confirming reservations in advance while room rates are usually at their lowest.

 

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Flight Review: Delta Airlines Embraer E175

Delta Airlines non-stop regional jet service to Seattle from Edmonton has been up and running since December, 2015 and by all accounts has been a success so after a few flights on the route thought I would share some thoughts on the Brazilian-built Embraer 175 playing the route.

The route and other in the Pacific Northwest is operated under the Delta brand by regional carrier Compass Airlines  who has a fleet of 36 Embraer 175 aircraft each with 76-seats which are divided into 12 First Class seats, 20 Comfort + and 44 in Economy.

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The seat width varies by less than 2-inches between First Class,  Comfort + and Economy seats but the legroom increases from 37-inches in First to 34-inches in Comfort + down to 31-inches in regular Economy seats. I found my window Economy seat offered just enough legroom for this average 5- foot 10-inch traveler on a short 90-minute flight.

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Note that regular Economy seats don’t include in-seat power outlets as  those are found in Comfort + and First Class only.

I liked that the center armrest could be lifted to allow a little extra room between the seats in the Delta aircraft configuration with two seats on either side of the center aisle except in First Class where there is a single row on one side and two seats on the other.  I find the in-seat shoulder room, headroom and bin space on this Embraer much better than other regional jets such as Bombardier’s CRJ.

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Row 14 is listed as a window seat but is actually between two windows so not ideal if you like to take in the Pacific Northwest views.

Travelling with carry-on only and not wanting to have my bag gate checked I’d opted to buy Delta’s Priority Boarding as part of its Trip Extras on the outbound flights Edmonton – Seattle and Seattle – Portland to allow boarding earlier in Zone 1 instead of Zone 3 at a cost of USD$15 per segment. This perk was handy but it’s value will of course depend upon how full or empty the flight actually is, an often unknown quantity.

One unexpected benefit revealed itself after my Edmonton – Seattle flight was delayed 30-minutes putting my 60-minute Seattle connection in jeopardy however a flight attendant assured those who inquired about missing their connections that they were arriving into gate 7A and that they should check the ‘connections board’ in the gate area which show the gate numbers of onward connections. After disembarking I consulted said ‘connections board’ and after noting my new gate number dutifully set out to find it only to realize a split second later that it was the same gate I’d just arrive into and I didn’t have to rush anywhere as it was the same aircraft I’d just walked off that with a new crew would continue onto Portland. In fact had aviation regulations allowed I could’ve stayed in the same seat, 14A, as I had the same seat assigned for both flights. This is one of the few times in my flying memory where I encountered this same-plane service on a true connection.

There’s an excellent aircraft tour with a good look at the roomier Delta Economy Comfort seats in this video.

A two-wheel tourist tries out two new Edmonton river valley landmarks

My first big bike ride of the season offered an excuse to check out a few new landmarks in Edmonton’s river valley and experiencing them made me feel like a tourist in my own town but little did I know that was exactly the intent from the outset of one of the architects involved in the project a decade in the making.

The 100th Street Funicular – formally known as the Mechanized River Valley Access Project –  is a $24-million dollar project designed to increase access to the river valley and one of its architects, Michael Zabinski, in this interview says the goal was to give Edmontonians like myself a way to see their city almost as if they’re tourists in their own backyard.

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The funicular – essential an inclined elevator – opened to much fanfare 9th December, 2017 but suffered more downs than ups as it was out-of-service for periods during the winter as it doesn’t operate below minus 25 degrees Celsius. That poor service record was noted in the local media who dubbed it a “fair-weather funicular” but city officials pointed to a cold winter and “teething problems” with a new technology as reasons for its being offline.

Now that the warmer weather has arrived however staring up the stairs that run beside the funicular the concrete seats do seem a great place to perch and soak in the scenery although whether it will quite become Edmonton’s equivalent of Rome’s famed Spanish Steps as Zabinski envisions remains to be seen.

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The designers did get one thing right for cyclists which is the bike rail that runs on the sides of the staircase allowing riders to push their bikes up the hill instead of carrying them or riding the black box funicular.

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At its base the funicular exits to a ledge adorned with wavy blue public art benches entitled Turbulent by Jill Anholt that is meant to reflect the water movement in the river .

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Whether anyone knew you could sit on the public art is unknown but there are a number of other concrete & wood benches nearby.

After riding the funicular up the hill it’s worth ambling down the stairs to take in the river valley view which includes the other new city landmark that delivers pedestrians to the valley floor, the Frederick G. Todd Lookout, named after the 20th Century landscape architect who envisioned Edmonton’s River Valley parks system.

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I was interested to learn that Todd, an American, apprenticed at the pioneering landscape architecture firm of Olmstead, Olmstead & Eliot which was founded by the sons of Frederick Law Olmstead, the designer of New York’s Central Park and considered by many to be the father of modern landscape architecture. After moving to Montreal, Todd was commissioned by the city of Edmonton in 1907 to prepare a report on how to provide green space for a growing city and he recommended parks, playgrounds and public spaces as well as preserving the natural space to protect it from both industry and residential use.  Devastating floods in 1915 wiped away river valley businesses and it proved the opportunity to set aside the valley for park land with the Government of Alberta adopting Todd’s report in principle. There’s much more on the City of Edmonton’s naming committee selection of Frederick G. Todd here.

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The lookout has an elevator that transports riders to the valley floor and the Louise McKinney Riverfront Park that leads either west under the Low Level Bridge or east below the Shaw Conference Centre.

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The lookout and the pedestrian bridge over Grierson Hill are clad in wood helping it blend in with the surrounding valley greenery.

Lead architect of the project, Donna Clare’s, architectural fingerprints are all over Edmonton as beyond the 100th Street Funicular and the Frederick G. Todd Lookout she’s also been behind the new Walterdale Bridge with it’s soaring white arches and the new downtown home of the Royal Alberta Museum.

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I’ll confess to being a long-time skeptic of the funicular and lookout for both their costs as well as the three-year building program that saw some river valley trails closed and that skepticism seemed borne out by the early operational issues but while I’m still not convinced a winter city such as Edmonton really needs a fancy funicular that isn’t fully functional for extended periods each year I’ve softened my opposition seeing how well the two work together to allow everyone to enjoy Edmonton’s greatest asset beyond its citizens, the 18,000 acres that forms the largest urban park in Canada and third largest in the world.

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The basics of ‘Basic Economy’ airfares

The growing trend of North American airlines introducing a stripped-down economy fare has spread north of the border with both WestJet and Air Canada in recent days unveiling their own ‘basic economy’ fares but is this a good thing for Canadian travelers?

Delta Airlines was the first among legacy carriers to pioneer no-frills fares which it’d offered on some routes as early as 2014 but expanded in 2017 with American Airlines and United quickly following suit. What you get for the price of a basic economy ticket varies by airline but generally it gets you a seat and a carry-on and the same in-flight service as any economy passenger but little else as no itinerary changes are allowed and if you don’t use the ticket you won’t receive a refund or a credit to use on a future trip. As well the option to upgrade or select seats in advance even for a fee are also not permitted.

Dubbed ‘Economy Minus’ by some aviation commentators, ‘Basic Economy’ fares are in vogue as  a way for legacy airlines to be competitive with ultra low-cost carriers by offering flyers the choice of not paying for features that aren’t important.

This à la carte approach to fares looks like a win for consumers at first glance however in reality takes away perks that had until recently been included and without a noticeable price savings as Basic Economy fares are only the lowest fares an airline offers and are not necessarily a lower fare than the ones they replaced.  The benefit to consumer of having more choice is also only an advantage if they actually understand what they’re purchasing and given the myriad of fare types many don’t invest the time to research the online fine print and focus only on the lowest price.  In some cases the spread between the Basic Economy fares and the least expensive regular economy fares is small enough that paying a little more but getting more flexibility can be well worth it.

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Here in Canada, WestJet launched it’s Econo (Lowest )fare on select domestic routes to coincide with its 22nd anniversary in late February. The fare comes with some notable exclusions:

Keep in mind these WestJet Econo (Lowest )Fares may wind up competing with WestJet’s own ultra low cost airline called Swoop which takes flight in June 2018.

On WestJet’s website when pricing out an Econo (Lowest )route such as Edmonton – Vancouver the fares are displayed in a vertical grid.

After selecting the Econo (Lowest) fare, a confirmation screen requires users to confirm that they accept the restrictions before proceeding to payment.

There’s a summary of the WestJet fare options here.

Air Canada meantime has come out with its own version of Basic Economy on select domestic routes and like WestJet its no-frills fares earn no frequent flyer miles and checked bags may be added for a fee however unlike WestJet will allow passengers to assign a seat in advance for a fee. A chart showing all five flavors of economy airfares for travel within Canada is here. Note that all Basic fares may only be purchased through Air Canada channels.

One of the Air Canada Basic Economy routes is Edmonton – Vancouver and so this is how the pricing screen looks with the five levels of economy fares, their corresponding features and all-in prices with taxes displayed.

After selecting the Basic fare option a pop-up advisory reminds shoppers the realities of the fare and the difference to opt-up to the more flexible fare type Economy Standard which Air Canada used to call Tango.

The small fare upgrade to gain more flexibility in this case seems well worth it but each consumer will have to weigh the options for themselves.

Time will tell whether these bare-bones economy fares are a hit or a miss with the Canadian traveling public but it appears they are here to stay.

 

Seven bays tour in Huatulco; smooth sailing after a rocky start

The best way to explore and experience the scenic beauty of Huatulco’s famous bays is to head to sea for a day-long snorkel tour and so I signed up for an excursion that went swimmingly after a rocky start.

I confirmed the Amstar Seven Bays tour with the tour company rep. in the lobby at Dreams Huatulco a few days in advance and at the appointed pick-up time loitered in the lobby awaiting the tour pick-up which failed to show up. Figuring the driver was running on Mexican time we waited patiently but after a spell asked the tour company staffer on duty for a status update and after a few cell phone calls found out that despite having a receipt the reservations hadn’t been logged into the system so the pick-up never arrived. As a Plan B a taxi ride was arranged for the short drive to the nearby Santa Cruz marina but with no tour company staff on hand we weren’t sure where we should go or who we should see but luckily a local boat boss took charge and made sure we were in the right place at the right time.

photo courtesy of Shannon Poole

The tour begins with a leisurely route north from Santa Cruz along the rugged coast with the hills a brown dry colour during dry season in February when barely any precipitation falls.

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A number of notable local marine landmarks are seen including El Faro (the lighthouse), a blow hole and the Stone Face.

photo courtesy of Shannon Poole

Special guests appeared during the coastline cruise as dolphins appeared off the starboard bow.

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Organo Bay is within the Huatulco National Park which has preserved its virgin bay and long  crescent beach.

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The tour’s first stop is Chachacual Bay which is accessible only by boat.

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Savvy local entrepreneurs sell shade under beach umbrellas for MXN100 or about CAD$6 which for a 90-minute rental is a virtual necessity given the scorching sunshine.

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The snorkeling equipment is included and there’s 90 minutes to view the scenery above & below the waterline.

photo courtesy of Shannon Poole

The visit to Chachacual Bay included a visit from a local hermit crab who turned out to be a handful.

photo courtesy of Shannon Poole

After our aquatic adventure we pulled anchor and set a course for Maguey Bay which is lined with local restaurants offering shaded dining under thatched roof that extend almost to the waters edge.

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The two hour stop was about an hour too long for me as beyond having something to eat and swimming among the crowded waters of the bay there really isn’t too much to do. My lunch of a side of fries and a couple of local beers was almost the equivalent of CAD$15 with tip so nowhere near as inexpensive as elsewhere I’d experienced in and around Huatulco.

One tip I’d pass along for those joining a day-long snorkeling tour is to have a waterproof plastic container to store resort room key, I.D. such as a drivers licence and some smaller U.S. bills as this will allow you to keep your essentials with you instead of leaving them on the boat.

It should go without saying that any day of leisure snorkeling and soaking up the scenery of the bays of Huatulco is a good day but I would’ve preferred more time in the water in different bays and less time sitting around at waterside diners. For the price this tour is a good value and know the booking problems encountered at the start were an oversight so would close by noting that this is a day-long tour with snorkeling rather than a dedicated snorkeling tour so those wanting more time in the warm waters of Huatulco should plan accordingly.

 

Resort Review: Dreams Huatulco, Mexico

Despite much daily whining about life’s little trials and tribulations I have to remind myself often  how fortunate I really am in general but more specifically this Winter for being able to escape the cold for the second time in seven weeks at a luxury beachfront all-inclusive resort and enjoy the sunny southern Mexican serenity of the Dreams Huatulco .

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Famous for its nine bays that line this stretch of the state of Oaxaca’s Pacific coast, Huatulco  boast 330 days of sunshine each year and an average sea and air temperature of 28 Celsius year round but unlike other Mexican resort destinations like Cancun that vary from cooler and wetter in Winter to wickedly hot and humid in Summer what makes Huatulco unique is its climate which only sees the daily temperatures vary by only a few degrees throughout the year. The very dry Winter season runs November – April when the Sierra Madre Del Sur mountains are brown and some months like February see no precipitation to a wet Summer season May – October when the hills become lush and green. In short, it means the ideal climate for Canadians escaping a cold, dark Winter months to soak up the almost guaranteed sunny, warm and dry days.

The family-friendly Dreams Huatulco is set on a glorious golden brown sand beach on Tangolunda Bay, one of two bays along with Conejos that have resort development with the others left unspoiled within a nearby national park. There’s an excellent satellite map of the coast here.

Having contacted the resort ahead of time to share room preferences it was a nice surprise to learn I’d been upgraded from a lead-in Deluxe Tropical View to a Deluxe Partial Ocean View room  that came complete with a welcome sash draped across the hallway door and a bottle or sparkling wine. Sometimes being in the travel industry has its perks.

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photo by author

I expected the door cash to be taken down after the first day but it actually stayed up the whole week and it’s these little touches that helped make for an enjoyable stay. Other such door sashes could be seen along the hallway noting honeymooners, special anniversaries or repeat guests.

Room 4358 features two double beds,  a private balcony with two chairs and a small table that overlooks a pool and with good views over the bay.

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The balcony also affords views of the small patio in front of the Mexican El Patio restaurant which is often used for theme nights such as the Oscars.

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There is a flat screen TV in the room with dozens of channels but few in English and an on-demand movie selection I failed to master as there are far more engaging things around the resort like watching the sunset with a cold cerveza.

The bathroom features his & hers sinks in a marble vanity, toiletries and an incense stick in case of overpowering odors as there is no exhaust fan which is rare in hotel/resort bathrooms in my experience.

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The lack of a fan was noticed most often in the morning when enjoying hot showers in the large tiled shower stall which has been retrofitted with a rainfall shower head.

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There are a 6 pools spread throughout the resort including a trio of infinity pools overlooking the beach that offer memorable bay views.


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The beachfront infinity pools are prime spots that are claimed very early in the morning as I found one morning when I grabbed a towel and set off at 6:45 AM to claim a couple of lounge chairs before an early breakfast only to find them all claimed! How early they were reserved is unknown but  getting up well before dawn to claim lounge chairs isn’t on my list of holiday priorities.  I should note that the resort is very proactive about discouraging guests from hogging the loungers for prolonged period of disuse but many are saved by family or friends travelling as a group so harder to spot or police.

The seaside pools feature a wooden canopy that shields pale gringos from the direct southern sun and a shallow ledge should you want to move your lounge chair into the water.

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Everyone’s preferences will of course vary but I found the beachfront pools a little too active for my liking with loud music from early afternoon onward plus regular activities such as water aerobics so I sought refuge in a quiet corner of the resort at the “L” shaped adult-only pool in front of the Asian restaurant Himitsu.

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This pool often had lounge chairs unclaimed after 10 AM and because of the buildings moved into total shade by 4 PM daily and after getting to know some of the other guests it became my preferred relaxation hideaway.

I found out about the strength of the sun while assiduously sticking to the shade while parked on a lounge chair but still picked up a mild sunburn as I hadn’t applied any suntan lotion but didn’t think I needed to being totally under cover. Lesson learned.

At any of the pools there is regular bar service from the personable wait staff that work hard to cater to drink requests.

The Dreams Huatulco strikes a good balance between adult-only areas and family-friendly zones such as the kids pool with its half-size little loungers just behind the Oceana seafood restaurant.

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The beach-lovers can opt to spend time at the waters edge under palapas.  The ones nearest the Barracuda beach bar are reserved for members of the upgraded Preferred Club rooms but there are others steps away available to all resort guests.

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The rocks frame the beach at one end and offer a good vantage point looking back up at the Dreams Huatulco.

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As Pacific Mexican beaches go Playa Tangolunda is my new favorite as it’s very clean, runs for a way beyond the Dreams Huatulco and is calm enough within the bay to allow for snorkeling, kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding. To put yourself on this beach there’s a great 360-degree view here.

The resort dining is excellent and varied with five à la carte restaurants, a buffet and a café as part of the all-inclusive program. No reservations are required and there is no limited as to the number of times guests may visit any of the restaurants.

One restaurant I visited more than once during the week-long stay is it’s that good is the Asian restaurant Himitsu which as the name, decor and menu suggests is essentially a Japanese restaurant with a few Thai and Chinese dishes thrown in for good measure to give it the advertised “Pan-Asian” flavor.

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Himitsu has both indoor and outdoor tables with the latter offering a blue hue next to the pool after sunset.

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The adult-only Italian restaurant Portofino was named to the lifestyle magazine Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence for 2017  for its extensive 2000 bottle wine cellar with over 200 varieties of wine and champagne from quality producers and with various themes to compliment its menu. There 100-seat restaurant includes a small chefs table within the wine cellar which can be reserved at an extra charge.

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One of the resorts two Sommeliers are on hand to offer input on wine pairings with the cuisine on the restaurant’s menu.

While happy with the meal I wasn’t blown away with Portofino enough for a return visit as the space with it’s soaring stark white vaulted ceiling while eye-catching has too colourless a decor to match the traditional Italian theme for my liking.  That isn’t to say I think the restaurant must have  the stereotypical Italian restaurant decor of checkered red & white tablecloths, wax-dripped candles in wine bottles and murals of Rome but some vibrant ruby reds or other splashes of colour would help warm up this restaurant as fine dining doesn’t have to be so visually bland.

Note that Portofino is the only restaurant at Dreams Huatulco with a ‘formal attire’ dress code which means no sandals or flip-flops but rather dress shoes, collared shirts and long pants for men and dresses, skirts, slacks and blouses for the ladies.

The plaza in front of the El Patio Mexican restaurant is often dressed up with theme night outdoor dining the week including a Mexican night with the traditional fiesta party flags draping the patio and Mariachi bands playing local favorite songs.

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El Patio has a ‘casual elegance’ dress code which means pretty much everything except flip-flops and sleeveless shirts. The interior has a very traditional Mexican feel with rich wood accents and local art (see 360-degree view here).

photo courtesy of Shannon Poole

Dinner at El Patio begins with a visit, or two, to the self-serve appetizer bar which includes a choice of meats, cheese, veggies and fresh guacamole to make your own quesadillas, and tostadas. The tortilla shells come fresh off the grill hand made and fried by a cook. The restaurant’s  menu is more than the expected fare as there are regional specialties from around Mexico highlighted by the Oaxacan cheese and meat and the local delicacy chapulines, spicy grasshoppers.

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The grasshoppers  aren’t as crunchy as expected when eaten by themselves and their mild chili flavor complement the meat, cheese and guacamole when making a soft taco. I’m not normally too adventurous of a diner when travelling but have to say I’m glad I tried the local delicacy as it became a highlight of my trip and a good story to share over a meal with friends & family back home. The meal ended with a spirited dessert of a very thick almost fudge-like Oaxacan chocolate ice cream treated with Mezcale.

The aptly named Seaside Grill is a favored spot to enjoy buffet breakfast with stunning ocean views and the sound of waves washing ashore on Playa Tangolunda. By midday the venue serves lunch and at sunset dinner of hamburgers, grilled chicken and beef and fish.

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The Seaside Grill share space with the adjoining Oceana seafood restaurant whose menu has an extensive selection and a few surprises such as the salmon bathed in champagne and shrimp sauce. Both restaurants are ‘casual’ dress code which permits shorts, sandals, sneakers and flip-flops from all patrons and only excludes sleeveless shirts from the men.

The lone buffet restaurant open morning, noon and night is the large World Café whose bulk of tables are inside but a dozen tables on the outdoor terrace which I preferred for the gentle breeze and sea views.

The Coco Café is open throughout the day serving coffees, cookies and pastries and overnight with late night snacks and light bites. Within  the cafe are guest use computers and a handy book lending library I used to avoid a reading material crisis.

The lobby bar Rendezvous is a fairly quiet place during the day but comes alive after sunset with the resort activities team leading trivia and karaoke. There are two pool tables to one side and a well-stocked bar with premium spirits including local Oaxacan mezcale which is renown around Mexico as the country’s best.

photo courtesy of Shannon Poole

The Dreams Huatulco Spa by Pevonia has a cave-like feel as it’s built under the tennis court above and features ten treatment rooms including two for couples with message and body treatments, and hydrotherapy pools with relaxing loungers.

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There are some unexpected elements about the Dreams Huatulco including a baby turtle release program July through December guests are invited to join and a falconer who oversees a pair of hawks who scare away the common beach birds that would otherwise annoy staff and guests at the outdoor restaurants.

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There’s lots to love about the Dreams Huatulco as it’s a high quality beachfront all-inclusive resort staffed with friendly and engaging employees and offering very clean and comfortable rooms with memorable views so I can see why many friends choose to return time after time and speak so highly of the resort. Add-in almost perfect weather, off-site sightseeing and direct air connections from western Canadian gateways and I’m already planning my next Huatulco escape.

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Flight review: Sunwing Boeing 737

After much anecdotal input on Sunwing from friends, family and clients with not all of it being positive it was with much curiosity and admittedly a little anxiety that I embarked on my first flight on this low cost carrier but despite the neutral to negative portrait they’d painted I came away pleasantly surprised after my flight to Huatulco, Mexico.

Having long heard about the tight 29-inch seat pitch in regular economy seats on Sunwing’s Boeing 737 aircraft I paid to upgrade to the Elite Plus seats on the outbound flight and selected an exit row aisle, 16D, for the 7+ hour direct flight from Edmonton with a touchdown Calgary.

The advantage of having a dedicated check-in line for Elite Plus passengers is lost if you check in so early that there are no line-ups but for those less anally early it’s a handy perk.

Considering the cost to assign a normal economy seat in advance is $20 per person one-way, the upgrade to Elite Plus at 2.5 times that amount to me isn’t too exorbitant given the extra creature comforts and priority perks which included my being the first passenger to board the flight.

Seat pitch in the emergency exit row aisle seat was excellent with a good 3 – 4 inches clearance to the seat pocket of the row in front.

The seat pitch was enough to allow the window seat passenger to step around me to access the aisle without my having to stand up.

The advertised “champagne” service was actually a small plastic cup of sparkling wine but I found the in-flight service from the crew to be very personable and attentive. The buy-on-board menu with dishes from Canadian celebrity chef Lynn Crawford is diverse enough to offer something for everyone. Seatmates enjoyed the pizza but having had a bigger breakfast before boarding in Edmonton I opted for the cashews and Mill Street Brewery Original Organic Lager for CAD$11.50 as I devoured a good novel.

Elite Plus passengers are to receive complimentary ear buds but failed to receive my set which wasn’t a big deal as I read the whole flight. The in-flight entertainment featured some recent movies on shared screens every few rows instead of seat-back TV’s.

My return flight was in a regular economy aisle seat, 12D, and my knees almost touched the seat pocket so the seat pitch is as tight as expected making the journey seem longer. As all passengers are dropped off at the same time at Huatulco airport making for longer check-in lines if I were to upgrade to Elite Plus only one-way I’d recommend confirming it on the inbound flight rather than the outbound flight.

I arrived ready to find fault but came away from my Sunwing flights with few complaints so wouldn’t be as hesitant to fly the airline again. I would however recommend upgrading to Elite Plus seats round-trip as to me worth it’s for the priority perks and extra legroom.

In search of Needful Things in Cancun

If you’re like me and enjoy an occasional escape to an all-inclusive beach resort to devour everything on the all-inclusive menu and a good book by the pool or ocean you can relate to the mild panic of coming to the end of your novel before the end of the holiday as recently happened to me in Cancun, Mexico.

I packed the paperback edition of An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris who masterfully tells the true tale of the Dreyfus affair which divided France for a decade at the end of the 19th century but I raced through its 624-pages the first two days and found myself suddenly without engaging reading material.

Some resorts have a lending library which is mainly made up of paperbacks left behind and while a limited choice of topics they can be a good back-up but my resort was so high-end it didn’t bother with such notions and as the local convenience store had almost everything but readable English books I invested USD$1 to hop the bus to a nearby upscale shopping center but came away empty-handed.

Booting up the laptop I found a local  second-hand English bookstore called Needful Things in downtown Cancun that  isn’t too far from the tourist bus route on a main avenue.

The interior reminded me of a local Edmonton used bookstore called Wee Book Inn except more humid even at 10 in the morning.

Browsing the shelves I found a Scott Turow novel, Ordinary Heroes , that caught my eye so reluctantly traded my virtually new Thomas Harris paperback for a well-worn novel a dozen years-old and while I felt the worse in the trade consoled myself with the upside that I had a good book to read. Ironically, the book I selected was one I’d already purchased and so now have duplicate copies of the paperback.

I finished Turow’s Ordinary Heroes after returning home and would recommend it also to anyone wanting a good read family historical drama.

I’m glad I sought out this little literary corner of Cancun as it saved me from days of boredom so should you find yourself resort-rich but book-poor there’s always a go-to resource a short bus ride away in Cancun to replenish your reading materials.

Two wheel tour of Isla Mujeres, Mexico

When planning my escape to Cancun a day-long detour to a nearby offshore tropical island named Isla Mujeres or “Women’s Island” in Spanish seemed exotic enough and while I failed to return with a female in my carry-on I did enjoy a memorable day on a bike exploring this slender island from north to south.

While lying a scant 8 miles off the Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula Isla Mujeres seems a world away from the country’s mega-tourism capital of Cancun with a far more laid back, low-key lifestyle. The island’s Spanish name was given by 16th century conquistadors due to the many images of the Mayan goddess of childbirth and medicine, Ixchel, a fact I thought of as the Ultramar fast catamaran ferry laboured through some choppy seas to deliver me to the Terminal Marítima at the island’s northern tip.

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Don’t believe the advice from hotel concierges that the best transportation option to the Ultramar ferry terminal at Puerto Juarez is an expensive cab ride when the local bus that runs the length of the resort corridor runs right to the   terminal  USD$1 one-way per person.

While most gringos opt for the ubiquitous golf cart that has become the island’s favored form of transportation I opted to rely on pedal power to wheel me around the barely 4-mile long island. I stopped at a local bike rental shop recommended by the local tourism office and minus USD$12 daily rental fee rode away with a stylish Cape Cod Cruiser sporting under inflated tires but a sturdy frame.

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From the more urban area around the ferry terminal I headed south along the coast and near the airport came upon this sign with a replica whale shark.

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At the southern tip of the island is Punta Sur, an ocean side park sprinkled with modern art.

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On a ledge is a plaque letting visitors know that they are standing at the southernmost spot in all of Mexico.

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The views on three sides of the rough surf pounding against the island are more than worth the small price of admission to the park.

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The skyline of Cancun looms on the horizon.

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Pedaling north from the island’s southern tip takes one along a spectacular stretch of road that skirts the coast for miles.

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The mostly downhill ride from Punta Sur brought me to to the island’s most popular beach, Playa Norte.

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There are a growing number of hotels and resorts in Isla Mujeres and some locals commented that it wasn’t like it used to be however the island still retains that small town atmosphere

Isla Mujeres is a Pueblo Mágico or Magical Village program. a status granted by the Mexican government to 111 towns & villages to recognizes their cultural, historical, and natural interest and beauty and after spending a day cycling around this island soaking up it’s stunning scenery and enjoying its warm & friendly residents the magic of its unique culture was revealed to me and I look forward to my next visit which is hopefully longer.

Resort Review: Secrets The Vine, Cancun

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If it’s true that life’s a beach there could be few worse places to be beached than Secrets the Vine Cancun as this adult-only oasis set on a stunning beach with memorable ocean views from its chic designer guest rooms is a relaxing retreat from the wider world beyond its gates.

Since it’s grand opening in 2012 the 497-room Secrets The Vine Cancun has delivered a wine-focused upscale all-inclusive experience for singles & couples with gourmet  dining and a small but well laid-out resort complex.

I’d confirmed a Deluxe Ocean View room and was assigned #1805 upon check-in, a room with two double beds and a western sunset view over the neighboring Hard Rock Hotel Cancun.

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The room like the entire resort has a very crisp and clean yet warm modern design and a symmetry with two vanities, two beds, two glass enclosed spaces for toilet and shower stall, two closets, two grey wicker chairs on the balcony and matching terracotta tiling on the floor and ceiling in the washroom area that’s between the door to the unit and the bedroom.

The golden brown desk opposite the beds under the wall-mounted flat screen TV has a higher and lower tier with a mini-bar restocked daily under the former with the latter housing a drinks station and Nespresso coffee machine.

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The low-back cappuccino coloured leather chairs completely compliment the room decor but aren’t comfortable for long periods working on a laptop however it’s one of the few things I could find fault with after a week in the room with the other being no light switch in the glass-enclosed toilet as there are three wall-mounted light controls which are between the beds, inside the hallway door and over one vanity.

What really makes the room feel like a tropical bungalow yards from the beach despite being in a high-rise tower is the white wood print ceramic Italian plank tiling that runs throughout the bedroom and balcony.

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The large shower stall features a ceiling-mounted rainfall shower head as well as a wall-mounted shower head with individual controls of each that make for excellent refreshing showers you won’t want to leave. Note that only the Master Suites and Honeymoon Suites at Secrets The Vine Cancun offer a tub as all other room categories feature a shower only.

The sweeping ocean and lagoon views from the large balcony of room 1805 are another room highlight and was a nice place to watch the sunset every evening before heading to dinner.

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Wall-to-wall sliding glass doors open almost the entire width of the room making the balcony feel like an extension of the bedroom instead of a separate space.

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Worth noting is guest rooms on floors 10 – 20 and are serviced by one bank of elevators just off the main lobby while guests who’ve upgraded to the Preferred Club with its added perks and amenities stay in rooms from the 21 – 28 floors. That isn’t to say however that this is a 28-story building as there are no 1 – 10 levels and no 13th floor due to superstitions with that number so in reality more like a 19-story tower. I noted that curious numbering while lazing by the Terrace Pool and noting that the restaurants, spa and fitness facility were only a few floors up from the lobby level yet are on the 12th floor.

As the weather was cool and windy my first few days, I opted for a spot away from the beach at the Terrace Pool to unwind and swim.

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Despite arriving during high season the loungers by the beach and pool weren’t a problem to find later in the morning, a pleasant surprise for those who’ve  stayed elsewhere and had to reserve a spot early in the morning. The resort actually politely reminds guests not to hold loungers for longer than 30 minutes and I found this request was followed.

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Unlike at other luxury all-inclusive resorts Secrets The Vine Cancun doesn’t offer larger two-person day beds even in the Preferred Club but rather individual loungers with thick pads and section sofas. All loungers throughout the resort however do enjoy regular wait service for cocktails or bottles of water.

The beach in front of the resort is golden brown sand that extends out into the water making it good for swimming with good room between the water’s edge and stairs to the Barefoot Pool.

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The Barefoot Pool steps off the beach.

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My sunrise beach walks are always a favorite morning ritual when I’m in the tropics as it’s a serene way to start my day with few people on the beach. One  morning I came upon a pelican pausing from fishing in the shallows to preen.

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Around the resort there are a number of venues off the main lobby including The Vine Bazaar: The Vine Bar with it’s floor-to-ceiling 4,500 bottle wine cellar which is the largest in Mexico. Wine tasting lessons lead by the resort sommolier are  offered daily and is part of the Unlimited Luxury all-inclusive program.

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Champagne tasting is also offered on a regular basis at The Vine Bazaar for a USD $25 per person supplement for five glasses of champagne.

Steps away is The Vine Lounge which offers a casual venue for drinks during the day and hosts live entertainers most evenings.

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The duo “H & C” offered some funky cover versions of well known songs one evening but guests can consult the daily activities guide Sundial left in each room during the turn-down service as there’s a list of the performers in each venue with show times.

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Other lounges and bars to chose from are outdoor Mantees Bar and Sugar Reef steps from the pools and beach, the Red Vine Piano Lounge and Half Time sports bar which was a popular place among the mainly American guests for the NFL and college football games.

The top-shelf spirits served in all the cocktails at all bars and lounges come without plastic straws as the resort chain has joined with others in Riviera Maya and beyond to end the use of these as they do not decompose and harm marine ecosystems including the sea turtle that for are found along the coast.

As enjoyable as the guest rooms and lounges are it’s the dining that helps make Secrets The Vine Cancun memorable as it’s more than just food, it’s cuisine.

If you have a yen for Asian cuisine Dragons is a mix of Thai, Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese delicacies and what I liked most was that a diner could mix-and-match Oriental appetizers and entrées and not be limited to only to one regional specialty.

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Sea Salt is steps from the beach with an ocean view and serves a seafood inspired menu al fresco or on a patio outdoors.

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The night of my visit was a Caribbean-themed buffet night but the weather wasn’t cooperating with gusty winds strong enough to blow napkins off the table. Luckily however staff was always nearby to catch whatever fell and with almost as many staff as guests when I dined  the service was impeccable.

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Olio is an outdoor à la carte Mediterranean restaurant open to all guests after 6 PM but reserved for Preferred Club guests during the day.

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Nebbiolo Ristorante is a classic Italian upscale dining restaurant on the 12th floor steps from the Spa, fitness center and Olio. The lasagna I ordered on my arrival night was a little cold and the portion size smaller than expected so wandered down and enjoyed some hearty Mexican food and the Mariachi band performing during Mexican night at the Market Café.


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Being low maintenance and an early riser I skipped room service and usually made my way down to Market Café buffet restaurant shortly after it opened at 7 AM after a refreshing beach walk or early work out.

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For a buffet restaurant the quality was very high and  the champagne chilled for a morning Mimosa or two.

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Next to Nebbiolo on the 12th floor is my favorite restaurant, the Bluewater Grill, which serves amazing steaks and grilled fare that had me making a repeat visit.

As with all restaurants at Secrets The Vine Cancun reservations are not required and no limits on specialty restaurant visits as is the case at some all-inclusive resorts. I found being seated as a solo traveler never an issue and wait times fairly short even at peak times.

Should all these varies dining venues not be enough, guests of Secrets The Vine Cancun may opt to take advantage of the Sip, Savor & See program which allows complimentary dinner and drinks and live evening entertainment at nearby participating resorts from 6 PM to 1 AM. The resort concierge needs to make the arrangements and transportation isn’t included but it’s a yet another option open to guests.

To work out the calories consumed at any of the resort restaurants the well-equipped fitness center is open daily 6 AM – 9 PM with stunning ocean views.

I enjoyed a morning run on the treadmill while watching the sunrise and the pelicans fish offshore.

Secrets The Vine Cancun more than lived up to its accolades as a luxury retreat and I very much enjoyed my week-long holiday from the moment I arrived and the front desk staff greeted me with a “welcome home” to the moment I left for the airport. The superior service, fine dining that’s better than any I’ve had at an all-inclusive resort, and ultra-comfortable  guest rooms make this adult-only a new favorite of mine especially while enduring a snowy Edmonton Winter.

There are panoramic 360-degree view of the rooms, beach, restaurants and public areas here.

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