Posted by: ingaaksamit | May 11, 2010

Exciting News!

This travel blog is moving! Please click here to join me at www.ingasadventures.com for new entries.

Advertisements
Posted by: ingaaksamit | April 18, 2010

Vancouver, A City of Olympic Proportions

Olympic cauldron on the waterfront of Vancouver

Holding my position as a river of humanity flowed past, eddying around me and tugging at my elbow I let the electrifying energy of the 2010 Olympics wash over me. The accents of dozens of countries rumbled all around as smiling faces reveled in the good nature of the North, who welcomed the world with open arms. The charms of Vancouver were displayed with vivid clarity as the jagged, snow-covered peaks of the Coastal Range pierced the cerulean sky while the forested tapestry of Stanley Park nudged against the sparkling blue waterways of the Burrard Inlet.

As international broadcasters waxed poetic about the beauty of the jewel of the Northwest, exhausting superlative adjectives, I irrationally felt a swelling of pride. Never having lived in Vancouver I can’t lay claim to the city, but it has claimed a part of me, creating a sense of kinship born through multiple visits to the city over the years.

Downtown Vancouver

The rich, colorful images beamed into living rooms around the world are sure to inspire a bevy of vacation planning that will introduce Vancouver to a new crop of visitors. I could imagine all kinds of conversations happening, such as “Why haven’t we ever gone to Vancouver” or “Wow, I had no idea it was so beautiful there.”

What visitors will find in Vancouver will not disappoint. Rated the #1 most livable city in the world by The Economist in 2010, Vancouver is an international, sophisticated city offering cultural amenities, higher education, professional sporting events, world-class museums and abundant natural beauty.

Vancouver can be a destination unto itself, or a waypoint in a journey to other adventures. In winter, some of the best skiing in North America can be had at Whistler, a scant hour and a half away by car. Victoria, on Vancouver Island can be reached by ferry from Vancouver in 1 ½ hours. Oenophiles can find world class wineries in the comely Okanagan, where fruit orchards are still spliced between vineyards, only 4.5 hours by car or 50 minutes by air from Vancouver to Kelowna.

Inukshuk from the top of the Peak Chair at Whistler

Over the years I have developed a special fondness for Vancouver. My journey in appreciating the bounty of the Northwest has evolved over time as I learned more about its history and culture, inextricably bound to that of the First Nation’s peoples, the uniquely Canadian term for the native settlers of the land. The Inukshuk, the ancient stone navigational aides of the Inuit and other Arctic dwellers and iconic emblem of the Olympics, captured the symbolism of my voyage in understanding as well.

Squamish carver creating a totem

The organizers of the Vancouver Olympics went to great lengths to include participation by four First Nations leaders during the planning and execution of the Olympics, as evidenced by their prominent place in the opening and closing ceremonies, and displayed at many venues. The four host nations were the Lil’wat, Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh, all BC nations from the areas surrounding Vancouver.

Downtown Vancouver

Robson Street is ground central for shopping, eating and people watching in downtown Vancouver. The area between Burrard Street and Jervis is generally chock full of people, though nowhere near the crowds that descended upon the area during the Olympics, when the streets were closed to motor vehicles and a zipline was strung across Robson Square. Two landmark buildings anchor the southern end of the most vibrant section of Robson Street, the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver

Odds & Ends, by Emily Carr

Vancouver Art Gallery

For the first time visitor or visitor who has never taken the time to learn about the art of the Northwest, the Vancouver Art Gallery couldn’t be any more convenient, located in a place most likely to be frequented by tourists. On one of my early visits to the Vancouver Art Gallery I was introduced to the works of one of Canada’s most iconic artists, Emily Carr (December 13, 1871 – March 2, 1945), saving me from the embarrassment of saying, “Who?” upon hearing her name. The Gallery has an extensive collection of Carr’s post-impressionistic work based on her knowledge of the aboriginal peoples and landscapes of the Pacific Northwest Coast, which captures the spirit of a people whose lives are inextricably intertwined with their natural environment. Admission is $19.50 for adults.

High Tea

Fairmont Hotel Vancouver

The cosmopolitan Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, built by the Canadian Pacific and the Canadian National Railways, is a Vancouver landmark. Like other railway hotels known for their majestic beauty, this hotel is a part of Canada’s national heritage. Completed in 1939, it took 11 years to build due to delays associated with the Great Depression, and cost $12 million. The hotel underwent a massive restoration in the mid-1990s to bring it up to modern standards. Rates run from $230 and up.

Traditionally, a favorite activity is having high tea at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. Afternoon tea is offered daily in the 900 West Lounge, and includes delightful finger sandwiches, pastries, scones, fresh strawberries with Devonshire cream, and of course, tea. For those who are less traditional, champagne may be substituted for the tea. The hotel offers a special experience for the little ones, called Children’s Bubblegum Tea, held in a real castle. Their sandwiches consist of peanut butter and jelly, and they can partake of strawberries, fruit tart and chocolate chip cookies. The cost for the adult version is $49, while the kid’s version is $16.

Fresh produce at Granville Island

Vancouver Restaurants

Vancouver has a vibrant “foodie” scene as a result of an abundance of fresh produce, seafood, meats and a plethora of international chefs. There are so many restaurants jamming every block of Robson Street and the adjacent streets that I won’t pretend to have sampled every one. I have my favorites and I polled my friends who live in Vancouver, so the following is a very subjective but highly reliable list of just a sampling in downtown Vancouver and beyond.

 

Stanley Park

If you feel the need to walk off a meal or breathe in some the bracingly fresh Northwest air, Stanley Park, an urban oasis, has a multitude of activities to choose from. Larger than Central Park in New York City, the park easily absorbs the estimated eight million visitors it receives every year. The 5.5 mile (8.8 km) seawall path within the park is paved and is a popular route for bicyclists, in-line skaters and pedestrians. The entire seawall path extends beyond the park from the Convention Center at Burrard Inlet, through the park, past Granville Island all the way to Kitsilano Park, a distance of 13.7 miles (22 km). It could take an hour to bike just the Stanley Park section (2-3 hours to walk it). There are numerous bike and skate rental shops near the park. Hikers will enjoy an intricate network of forested paths through the park that will make you forget that the bustling city is a stone’s throw away. Along the way you might see totem poles, a lawn bowling competition, ponds and gardens, as well as spectacular views of Burrard Inlet. The totem pole display area at Brockton Point is the most visited tourist attraction in British Columbia, featuring totems carved by Coast Salish artist Susan Point. Located near the northern terminus of Georgia St, the 1,000 acre Stanley Park is easily accessed from downtown.

This will serve as an introduction to the charms of Vancouver. In Part II I will cover some of my favorite destinations beyond downtown.

All photos by Inga Aksamit, except “High Tea” (CC-Sam Choi: http://www.flickr.com/photos/23686250@N00/91380361/), and Emily Carr (CC-Public Domain).

BC Ferry near Vancouver

Posted by: ingaaksamit | March 7, 2010

New Orleans is back

French Quarter

I stepped out of the Intercontinental Hotel near the French Quarter in New Orleans on a warm, sunny mid-winter afternoon wondering what I would find post-Katrina. It had been five years since the hurricane devastated one of my favorite cities and while I knew that the city had been open for business for a long time, I was also aware that many were still affected by the devastation.

French Quarter

Musicians on Bourbon St.

I was pleasantly surprised to find thick crowds clogging the streets of the French Quarter, listening to street musicians, enjoying the trickster magicians, alcoholic libations in hand. Jazz musicians, barbershop quartets, zydeco and hill billy groups filled the festive air with good cheer. I passed Pat O’Briens and found a line out the door mid-afternoon, waiting for the famous (or in many cases, infamous) Hurricane drinks made with vodka, grenadine syrup, gin, light rum, Bacardi® 151 rum, amaretto almond liqueur, triple sec, grapefruit juice and pineapple juice, one being enough to put you down for the night. I reluctantly skipped that line in favor for another, making my way to the Central Grocery in search of the bright flavors of a muffuletta sandwich. The Sicilian sandwich, made with salami, ham and provolone cheese, topped with a generous layer of olive mix, comprised of chopped carrots, cauliflower, celery, peppers, and capers represents one of many foods I associate with New Orleans. Others include binets, crawfish, po’ boy sandwiches and red beans and rice. I had to prioritize since I was only free for one day, so I started with the muffuletta.

Muffuletta sandwich

Alas, the line was at least an hour long and acute hunger pains drove me a couple of doors down to Franks, where I ordered a muffuletta to go, and a large jar of olive mix to bring home. After shelling out $28 I was handed two large weighty bags. Upon opening the oil stained brown wrapper I was confronted by an enormous round French bun filled with the required ingredients, large enough to feed at least four people. I dove in, savoring the crisp crunch of the carrots, the tang of the marinade, the texture and spice of the cured meats tempered by the creaminess of the cheese. After satisfying my taste buds I carefully re-wrapped the substantial remains carefully for the flight home to San Francisco the following day, to be enjoyed by an appreciative husband.

Atchafalaya

Inga & Cynthia, at her place on St. Charles

That evening my good friend, Cynthia, and her husband, Bob, picked me and drove me to their condo on St. Charles, one of the main thoroughfares in the Garden District, wending though narrow streets filled with beautiful Greek Revival, Italianate and Queen Anne Victorian homes lucky enough to be located in an area unaffected by Katrina. After sipping wine and sharing stories through the afternoon we went to a nearby neighborhood restaurant. Atchafalaya (an American Indian word meaning “long river”), a family-owned restaurant since the 1920’s, is tucked away in the Lower Garden District. Upon arrival we were greeted by the hyperkinetic and personable owner, Tony Tocco, bouncing from his computer by the bar to the greeting station, showing us to our table while chattering away, grabbing menus along the way. After being seated, he hovered over our table, assembling the accoutrements of a flourishing wine-opening ceremony. We nibbled freshly baked, warm, flaky jalapeno corn bread, the flaky dough melting in our mouths, followed by a gentle kick from the jalapenos.

Owner Tony Tocco

The contemporary creole menu featured some of the best that New Orleans has to offer, and I tried to include as many favorites as I could reasonably accommodate in one meal, already having made the decision to abandon any negative thoughts about saturated fats, cholesterol or rich, buttery sauces during my short stay in the Crescent City. Hearing of my difficulty choosing between crawfish or shrimp and grits, Tony helpfully suggested substituting a crawfish remoulade instead of the crab remoulade that usually crowns the fried green tomatoes, an inspired choice. The firm flesh of the briny crawdad blended with the crispness of the ethereally light battered tomato; the whole concoction tied together by the tangy, slightly spicy sauce. I savored every bite.

Fried green tomatoes topped with crawfish remoulade

I never would have thought of pairing shrimp with grits, though it’s a local favorite. The shrimp, with heads a tails attached, just as nature intended, was perfectly grilled, nestled into soft pillows of creamy, finely grained grits unlike the anemic grits I’ve been served at breakfast diners. Chunks of Andouille sausage lent spicy notes to the smoked tomato in the sauce liberally applied to the shrimp and grits. I’m sure the butter content was shocking, but I didn’t care, forking mouthfuls of delicious, contrasting flavors into my mouth, slowly caressing each bite. I was impressed by the presentation of a simply grilled fillet of fish, accompanied by artfully displayed asparagus and spinach for Bob, who desired a lighter meal. Equally impressive was Lynn Strong, our capable waitress, who remembered exactly how Bob liked this dish prepared from a previous visit. Bob couldn’t resist sampling a shrimp or two, and Lynn materialized at his side, gently reminding Bob that the sauce contained butter, which he had firmly stated he was staying away from. He assured her he was throwing caution asunder for just a bite or two, drawing a chuckle and knowing look from Lynn.

Shrimp and grits

Service was a particular standout at Atchafalaya, with several people stopping by the table to chat and serve, pour wine and inquire as to our needs. Every table around us received equally attentive service delivered by the team in a seamless manner, demonstrating a sophistication you might not expect at a neighborhood bistro. Sean Bush struck up a conversation about hockey, a passion instilled by his father who played professional hockey, and we relived key moments from the recent heart stopping US-Canada Olympic match, resulting in a gold medal for Canada, silver for the US. He confided that he lost his house in the Katrina maelstrom, but was dedicated to New Orleans, and his status as a local was unmistakably sealed.

Grilled fish

Lynn, our waitress, moved from Florida ten months ago, after Katrina, part of an influx of new-comers who are helping to rebuild the city. Armed with a teaching credential she was surprised to find that it took some time to land a teaching position, explaining her presence at Atchafalaya on a Saturday evening. Having secured a teaching job, she continues to supplement her income at Atchafalaya. From these few conversations it is apparent that residents’ histories are marked indelibly by a pre-Katrina and post-Katrina timeline.

Reminiscent of Upperline and Clancy’s, Atchafalaya is a delightful neighborhood eatery, historic, romantic, hip and vibrant, all at the same time. Serving traditional Louisiana fare with its own flair, it’s a satisfying and stimulating place to visit. Prices ran from $7-12 for appetizers, and $18-36 for entrees. The fried green tomatoes were $12 (enough for two, if you want room for your entrée), while the shrimp and grits were $23.

New Orleans is still a shadow of its former self, missing about 2/3 of its former residents, and permanent changes have been wrought. However, my brief visit demonstrated that the city has reclaimed its essential charm and verve, remaining a unique and desirable place associated with unparalleled gastronomic delights.

INFORMATION:

Atchafalaya
901 Louisiana Ave.
New Orleans, LA
504-891-9626
www.cafeatchafalaya.com

Pat O’Brien’s
718 St. Peter Street (bar)
624 Bourbon Street (restaurant)
504-525-4823
www.patobriens.com/patobriens/

Central Grocery
923 Decatur St
New Orleans, LA
504-523-1620

Frank’s Restaurant
933 Decatur St
New Orleans, LA
504-525-1602
www.franksrestaurantneworleans.com/

Inga & Cynthia at Atchafalaya

Posted by: ingaaksamit | February 17, 2010

Spring into the backcountry with Pacific Crest Snowcats

A happy group of skiers and boarders with Pacific Crest Snowcats

On a rare sun drenched day last weekend Pacific Crest Snowcats showed off the beauty of the backcountry with a snowcat full of psyched skiers and snowboarders. Eleven clients and two guides piled into a van early in the morning, drove away from the crowded ski areas on a holiday weekend and made fresh tracks until the waning light of evening drove us out.

In the morning groups of friends furtively glanced at each other as we loaded equipment onto the van, sizing up the group while wondering how they might measure up, or perhaps if others could keep up. It turned out that the group, comprised of nine men and two women ranging in age from 20 to 60 and possessing high intermediate to advanced skills, was able to stay together quite easily.

Veteran guides Dave Rintala (the founder of Pacific Crest Snowcats) and Ken Manuel have a passion for skiing that led them to abandon their ski patroller careers in favor of hauling eager clients in a Bombardier snowcat, a vehicle with wide tracks that grip the snow on steep slopes and pirouette around sharp curves. They spend the winter months guiding the snowcat operation, then transition to Alaska as heli-skiing guides in the spring with Alaska Backcountry Adventures, while other local guides maintain the Tahoe venture.

The first run of the day, in an area called Morning Glory, lived up to its name. A moderately angled, sun-dappled slope allowed everyone to stretch their legs, sliding down a knoll that opened up to a wide vista overlooking a deep, forested valley. The spectacular view set the stage for the rest of the day as the snowcat ascended higher and higher with each run.

Mike Scheck enjoys a short hike

After being battered by one string of storms after another the blue-bird day in Coldstream Canyon was a welcome respite, and we took advantage of the warm temperatures by trundling up a steep road to catch some gorgeous corn snow (a desirable snow condition resulting from a freeze-thaw cycle that produces smooth, soft snow over a firm base) in the late morning, experiencing spring in February. The run was so good that we voted as a group to repeat it not once but twice more, the last time hiking beyond the road to reach the highest point. We were rewarded with a 360 degree view of the surrounding summits of Tinker’s Knob, and Lincoln, Judah, and Castle Peaks, and a smooth, exhilarating run down the velvety corn snow.

Having agreed to delay lunch to take advantage of the ideal corn snow we were one ravenous bunch that descended upon the feast that had been spread out on two folding tables loaded with chips and salsa, lunch meats, and a California-inspired variety of veggies, including avocado, red pepper rings, lettuce and onions. Hummus, peanut butter and jelly, cookies and assorted soft drinks rounded out the selection that was quickly devoured.

Guide Ken Manuel prepares lunch (photo by M Scheck)

After lunch, as the corn snow began re-freezing, we tackled a north facing slope, sliding off a small cornice to gain access to an open bowl of beautiful winter snow, narrowing to a steep choke that took a bit of technical maneuvering before winding through the forested lower slopes. For Pacific Crest Snowcats this is the playground of winter conditions where the slopes hang on to powder for days after a storm, rather than the spring-like conditions we were experiencing, and we were all glad to get a taste of the steeper terrain.

Rintala and Manuel have a zeal not only for skiing but safety, starting the day with a short safety briefing followed by an exercise in locating a buried beacon with Trackers, a transceiver worn by each participant that aids in locating buried objects in the unlikely event of an avalanche. The settled conditions we were skiing in made the avalanche danger quite low, but Rintala and Manuel view a day in the backcountry as an ideal time to begin educating clients about good safety practices, so concepts like not resting in the trough of a potentially avalanche-prone gully become second nature. They know that once people get a taste for the backcountry they will be more likely to venture out on their own, so they take their educator role seriously to establish good habits in their clients. Wide spacing between skiers, skiing from zone of safety to zone of safety, and crossing slopes one at a time become the norm after a day of backcountry skiing with Pacific Crest Snowcats.

Guide Dave "Happy" Rintala

At the beginning of each run one guide was stationed at the bottom, radioing intelligence to the guide at the top. They consistently gave us a rundown of the lay of the land, describing the angle of the slope, expected snow conditions and any prominent terrain features they were aware of. They gave specific instructions, such as, “Stay to the right of the trees and do NOT cross the road at the bottom.” Our track record on the first two runs left some room for improvement as first one snowboarder, and then another seemingly did the opposite and turned left instead of right, or crossed the road, causing one of them to miss a run while a guide helped him reconnoiter and both to accept some good-natured ribbing, but didn’t cause any delays for the rest of the group.

At the end of the day, as the group toasted each other with celebratory rounds of beer in the snowcat and reflected animatedly on our 10 runs we agreed that it was spectacularly successful, allowing us access to backcountry terrain with the safety net of experienced and well-equipped guides. We loved getting fresh tracks all day with our small group and enjoyed the camaraderie that grew through the day.

A full day with Pacific Crest Snowcats costs $325/person ($300 if booked 2 weeks in advance), which includes transportation from the base at Highway 89 and Squaw Valley road, all safety equipment, lunch and drinks. Skis and boards are not provided, though rental is available next door at Tahoe Dave’s Ski Shop. It’s a good idea to bring a water bottle and snack, such as an energy bar, in case of hunger or thirst before lunch is provided. Small packs and extra clothes can be left in the snowcat between runs.

 

Getting There:

To reach the Pacific Crest Snowcat base in North Lake Tahoe from San Francisco by car (approximately 4 hours, depending on traffic and weather):

  • Take Interstate 80 East (stay on 80 through Sacramento) and drive approximately 200 miles
  • Exit at Truckee onto Highway 89 South following signs to Lake Tahoe/Tahoe City/Squaw Valley and drive 8 miles to Squaw Valley Road
  • Pacific Crest Snowcats is located at the entrance to Squaw Valley Road, next to Dave’s Ski Shop.
 

 

 

 

 

Information
Pacific Crest Snowcats
888.792.9222

info@swayback.com
Base  located at Hwy 89 & Squaw Valley Road
Tahoe City, CA

Sierra Nevada

 

Rome

The Colosseum

The last time I was in Italy I was 14 years old, my mother and I having just been evacuated with the last of the women and children of Western nations from East Pakistan, leaving my father behind. East Pakistan was undergoing a bloody metamorphosis into Bangladesh in a bitter civil war, and we had had our share of stressful martial law for several weeks.

My mother must have been under unbelievable strain, having just left her husband in a war torn country, traveling across the Middle East with me, hop scotching from Tehran to Beirut to Rome. In Rome we found some respite where we could decompress, leaving me with vague flashes of memory of catacombs and villas, but nothing very distinct.

Cindy, Steve, Inga & Kelli at the Colosseum

In 2009 my husband, Steve, and I were traveling with two friends, Cindy and Kelli, on our way to spend a week in Umbria, passing through Rome with only two days for the city. None of my traveling companions had ever been to Rome and not having any strong opinions about sights I wanted to see I was passively carried along on their itinerary, each person democratically nominating one sight they that was paramount on their list. I mentioned something about a fragmented memory of a villa and somehow that made on in the list as an optional side trip.

We all ended up completely enchanted with Rome, packing as much as we possibly could into 2 days, propelled through jet lag with the exhilaration of viewing the next breathtaking slice of ancient history.

We stayed in the posh Hotel Eden courtesy of Cindy generously dipping into her vast store of Starwood hotel points to put us all up, placing us strategically on the edge of the Spanish Steps and Villa Borghese. Arriving from the U.S. in the early morning we staggered out of the hotel into streaming sunshine with no nap to descend the Spanish Steps to the beguiling Sinking Boat Fountain. Fed by aqueducts, as are all of Rome’s fountains, this one supposedly contained the sweetest water in all of Rome. We strolled through the beautiful grounds of the Villa Borghese garden, squinting to blur the graffiti that seems to plague all big cities, but seemingly more offensive when applied to structures hundreds or thousands of years old.

Cindy keeps a wary eye on auto as she dines

Grabbing a short nap before dinner we set out to continue our explorations, heading south from the hotel, eyes darting around gazing in wonderment at the dramatic architecture and art that was simply part of the landscape. Soon, small cafes were seen spilling across every sidewalk and into some streets, causing diners to use caution as automobiles slid by inches from their elbows. We sensed quickening excitement and the faint sound of cascading water, suddenly rounding a corner to face the torrents of water erupting from the Trevi Fountain. Built in 1762, the watery panorama was matched by the detailed baroque scenes depicting an arena for the figure of “Ocean” surfing through his kingdom. The two fountains we had seen so far set the stage for our water-themed memories of Rome and the surrounding area.

We admired the open dome of the Pantheon, peeked at the handiwork of the Christian catacombs used for vertically efficient burial, and stopped in our tracks at the engineering wonder of the Colosseum. Almost everyone has seen familiar scenes of ancient Rome on postcards, movies, magazines and newspapers but it’s an eerie feeling of déjà vu to see the familiar for the first (or second) time. The scale of the Colosseum is not reproducible on paper or celluloid, the vastness indescribable, the size of the boulders hewn from the crust of the earth and hauled to the fourth story unbelievable. Inadequate superlatives fell from our lips in bursts, giving way to a stammering search for descriptive expression followed by gaping silence and a sigh. But there was more, and after crossing the street we passed the Arch of Constantine, symbol of the mainstreaming of Christianity, and on to the Roman Forum, a sprawling city center and birthplace of ancient Rome, painstakingly undergoing excavation even now. There is still more—above the Forum is Palatine Hill with the huts of Romulus and Remus the brothers who are credited with founding Rome, loaded with still more history. Two thousand years of history is a lot to take in in two days, but we opened our minds and tried to absorb it all, experiencing the best Rome has to offer and none of the tourist annoyances of petty theft or pick pocketing we had been warned of.

Villa D’Este

Hunting scene from painted mural in Villa D'Este

With visions of our hill town villa in Umbria enticing us onward, we reluctantly packed our bags and departed from ancient Rome, determined to fit in one more expedition along the way. We debated descriptions of the various villas on the tourist trail, bouncing them against my fragmented memories of vast gardens and statues to see if any stuck. The Villa D’Este sounded promising, so off we went, steering our rental car through the maze of Roman streets and out toward Tivoli, ground central for villas.

After some difficulty with directions we made our way to the center of Tivoli and discovered that were practically at the doorstep of Villa D’Este. The guidebook emphasized that the villa itself didn’t have much to offer as the grounds were the main attraction. We couldn’t have disagreed more. The Renaissance paintings that covered every wall and ceiling depicting various different scenes from hunting to socializing were beautifully detailed, ornate and striking. One section of flooring was cut away to show how the villa was built over the original foundation of an ancient Roman building,  a not uncommon finding as the Romans were masters of recycling. 

Inga, Cindy & Kelli at the Ovate Fountain

After we had had our fill of painted rooms we stepped outside into an aquatic fairyland. Water gushed, spouted, dribbled, burbled, shot noisily into the air and drained into calm pools. Small fountains were tucked into grottoes at the ends of walkways. Huge hydraulically operated fountains shot towards the sky creating a thunderous roar. Delicate arcs of water spouted from the orifices of gargoyles. Goddess Nature, a copy of the statue of Diana of Ephesus, adorned with multiple mammaries, poured water from each as she provided life-giving water to the gurgling stream beneath her feet.

Goddess Nature

Conceived and commissioned by Cardinal Ippolito II de’Este in 1550, he directed extensive reconstruction of an existing villa, while creating the spectacular terrace garden in the late-Renaissance mannerist style. The natural slope of the hillside was used as the backdrop but many innovations were required to bring in enough water to supply the cascades, water jets, fountains and pools. All the water is fed by the river Aniene and demonstrates an enviable mastery of hydraulics by the original engineers Tomamaso Chiruchi and Claude Venard in the late 1500s. The water is fed its original single pipe, bringing 300 liters of water per second to the base of the Ovato fountain, and using the principle of communicating vessels, feeds all the other fountains. These water features and techniques were imitated extensively during the next two centuries across Europe.

Again we were transfixed by the scale and enormity of the gardens, and our overused superlatives continued to pour from our lips as we skipped from one awe inspiring fountain to the next. Although the Villa and gardens didn’t match my sliver of memory of beautiful gardens I wasn’t disappointed as the Villa D’Este exceeded all expectations.

One Hundred Fountains Avenue

When we became blasé about yet another fountain we were captivated by the Hundred Fountains Avenue, a tree lined path filled with 100 small fountains spouting from different faces and shapes, taking photo after photo of yet another unique face. At the end of the line we came upon a jumble of watery scenes that we discovered were representative of various Greek and Roman figures, from the Ark to Neptune and Atlas to Romulus and Remus suckling from the she-wolf, per the fable about the early years of the founders of Rome living in a wolf den.

Romulus and Remus suckling from a she-wolf

As the shadows lengthened over the gardens of the Villa d’Este we tore ourselves reluctantly from the beauty of the watery oasis and resumed our trek toward the golden hills of Umbria.

INFORMATION:

Hotel Eden
Via Ludovisi 49
Rome 00187
Italy
Phone: (39)(06) 478 121
Fax: (39)(06) 482 1584
Email: 1872.reservations@lemeridien.com
Web: http://www.starwoodhotels.com/lemeridien/property/overview/contact.html?propertyID=1872

Villa D’Este official site (English):  http://www.villadestetivoli.info/indexe.htm

Villa D’Este-Free downloadable pocket guide:  http://www.tibursuperbum.it/eng/guide/index.htm
 

How to Get to Tivoli:
Villa d’Este – Location:  The Villa d’Este is located in the Piazza Trento, Viale delle Centro Fontane, in the Italian region of Lazio, near the town of Tivoli, 34 km east of Rome on the S5 road.

Villa d’Este by Car: Most tourists do the Villa d’Este and Hadrian’s Villa as a day trip from Rome. By car, take the S5 out of Rome to Tivoli. The Villa d’Este is on the western side of town.

Tivoli and Villa d’Este Via Train: You can get a train on the Roma-Pescara Line from Rome’s Tiburtina station to Tivoli. It takes about a half hour. Then you’ll hop a shuttle bus to the town center and Villa d’Este.

Tivoli and Hadrian’s Villa via Bus: Blue COTRAL buses leave the terminal at Rome’s Ponte Mammolo stop on Metro line found for Tivoli every 15 minutes. It takes about an hour. There’s a shuttle bus service from Tivoli main square to Hadrian’s Villa. (Hadrian’s Villa is not in Tivoli but on the plain below–a bus ride away)

Fish Ponds

Posted by: ingaaksamit | December 25, 2009

Romance in the Yukon

Steve & Inga on the Yukon River

“I’m completely bushed”, I said emphatically. We had just spent two and half weeks tracing the Klondike gold rush trail from Alaska to the Yukon, testing ourselves against the elements and spending 14 nights in a micro-mini tent. Our adventure began with a 33-mile ascent from sea to summit on the Chilkoot Trail, followed by a 200 mile canoe trip on Yukon River from Whitehorse to Carmacks, in remote wilderness with limited road access. Ending our trip back in Whitehorse we were ready to pamper ourselves.

Historical Guest House B&B

Instead of usual non-descript, functional hotels we’ve stayed in previously, this time we treated ourselves to the Historical Guest House Bed and Breakfast. This charming B&B, was built with hand hewn-logs in 1907 by brothers Mike and Tony Cyr, who themselves had hiked over the Chilkoot as gold seekers. Tony and his wife, along with their son Laurent lived there for many years. This would have absolutely no significance to the average American, but we had pulled our canoe up on the riverbank to enjoy a sun dappled picnic at the site of Laurent Cyr’s gold dredge a few days earlier and felt a special connection to sleep in the same house as the Cyrs after following in their footsteps and paddles.

Takhini Hot Springs

Feeling chilled to the bone after the last few cool, drizzly days on the river we headed to the outskirts of town to the Takhini Hot Springs for a long soak. Natural hot springs feed a large pool at the deep end which is quite warm compared to the shallow end. We eased into the warm water feeling the aches and pains from the last two weeks of intense physical effort dissolve, and our disposition relaxed.

Klondike Salmon & Rib House

Back in town we were more than ready for our first non-freeze dried meal in many days. We proceeded to our favorite restaurant, the Klondike Salmon and Rib House, where we often eat when we’re in town, sometimes every evening meal. I devoured my first salad in days savoring each crunchy bite of fresh greens, sweet tomatoes and crisp cucumbers lightly coated in vinaigrette. The fresh arctic char, grilled to perfection, was delectable accompanied by creamy mashed potatoes and crisp sautéed vegetables. We washed it down with Yukon Gold ale and had just enough room to share a huge slice of homemade berry pie. We reminisced about the highlights of our wilderness adventure, debating the size of the bears and lynx we saw and made plans to complete the next 200 miles of the river trip from Carmacks to Dawson in two years.

Buckets from the Cyr dredge, Yukon River

Since it was stayed light until 11 pm we strolled 2 blocks over to the river to have another look at the waterway that had provided so many memories and dreams for the future. Returning to town we visited Mac’s Fireweed Bookstore, a place that has absorbed many vacation dollars as they have an outstandingly extensive collection of Canadiana. We selected a few autobiographies to round out our collection of stories of the north, and headed for the Cyr homestead, holding hands and feeling lucky that by sharing adventures we strengthened our connections with the north, and,

Information:

Historical Guest House B&B
5128 5th Ave.
Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada
(867) 668-2526
www.yukongold.com

Klondike Salmon & Rib House
2116 2nd Ave.
Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada
867.667.7554

Takhini Hot Springs
Km 10/Mile 6 Takhini Hotsprings Road
Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada
1-867-456-8000
http://www.takhinihotsprings.yk.ca

Photos by Inga Aksamit
Published in Romantic Traveling, Fall 2009, Vol 19, No 4.

Sunset over the Yukon River

Posted by: ingaaksamit | December 17, 2009

Squaw Valley’s Women of Winter on Wednesdays ski program a hit

By Inga Aksamit, Inga’s Adventures

Jonny Moseley at the WOW clinic

On a finicky weather day when snow, sleet and rain fell, a jazzed up group of women assembled at Squaw Valley to learn a few tips and enjoy the camaraderie of skiing together in the inaugural Women of Winter (WOW) on Wednesdays ski clinic. Jonny Moseley, 1998 Olympic gold medalist in moguls, hosted the first WOW group to ever convene, along with some of the top female instructors at Squaw Valley to test a concept generated by lead instructors Fran Tone and Julie.

The goal of WOW is to make skiing enjoyable for women, teach a few tactics, explore the mountain and ski. This is not a traditional clinic where you spend a lot of time doing drills one at a time, or stand around analyzing each run. These activities have their place in skill-building and several other clinics at Squaw offer in-depth training, but the focus of WOW is different. The clinics are fast paced, only last two hours and are designed for maximum enjoyment of the snow. Many of the instructors, like Fran and Julie, have more than 10 years of teaching experienced and are certified Level 3 instructors.

On the inaugural day the WOW instructors weren’t sure what to expect but the turnout was excellent, with 15 skiers and 1 snowboarder. Three instructors were present, with two on skis and one on a snowboard. They were prepared to split into different groups of women but the group was able to mostly stay together, occasionally splitting into two groups. The ability level ranged from intermediate to advanced, but with limited visibility and early season conditions (and conditioning) everyone was skiing a bit conservatively to start with. As Jonny said when asked what he does on the first day of skiing each season, “Try not to get hurt.”  

Lead instructor Fran Tone giving a tech tip

On the first ride up the Funitel Fran and Julie gave everyone a pep talk, describing the goals of the program and getting everyone psyched to get on the snow. They emphasized that it’s early season for everyone and that for today’s clinic it was all about getting used to the snow after the summer hiatus. Their enthusiasm was infectious and soon pairs and small groups of women in the Funitel were excitedly sharing their experiences of skiing with “the guys” as they couldn’t find women to ski with. From the first ride it was obvious that these women were going to be seeking each other out after the program.

Everyone was excited to spend time with Jonny and he did a masterful job of moving around the group so that everyone got a chance to talk with him and ask questions, riding up the chair lifts with different people and posing for photo ops. He has an easy, approachable style and quickly found common ground across a range of conversational topics. He freely shared anecdotes about his Olympic experiences, post-Olympic career as a broadcaster, narrator of the Warren Miller movies the last two years, current role as Chief Mountain Host at Squaw Valley, and upcoming role as Olympic commentator for NBC. He misses competing but admits that, after getting married and having a son, now two years old, he definitely has a different perspective on taking risks.

The instructors had hoped to take the group to the steep terrain that Squaw offers, such as the East Face of KT-22 and Chute 75, but because of the low visibility they opted for Shirley Lake instead. After a couple of easy tree runs the group split into two, with some opting to continue on the lower angled slopes while the other group tackled the steeper runs. Jonny managed to find some tight places under Little Rockpile to execute some teaching moments, showing the group how the narrow chute was starting to look like a mogul run, and demonstrating the technique of making short radius turns and stopping. Of course he looked incredibly smooth and graceful and the WOW group did a respectable imitation.

WOW group on the chair lift with Jonny Moseley

Over and over the participants could be heard exclaiming over how much fun they were having, and how much they were enjoying the program. A lot of women were looking forward to skiing with some new-found friends after the clinic. Since the program is new the instructors frequently asked for feedback and the only suggestion was to make it a little longer, perhaps extending the time to three hours. All in all, everyone agreed that the first WOW program was a big success.

The Women of Winter program is offered on select Wednesdays from 10:00 am – 12:00 pm. Reservations can be made ahead of time or tickets can be purchased on the day of the clinic. Participants meet at the bottom of the Funitel at 10:00 am, except the Early Up program, which meets at 8:15 am.  The cost is $49 per session, or $159 for a book of 5 sessions, which reduces the cost to $31.80 a session. A book of 5 would make a great gift for women skiers. The schedule for the next WOW sessions is as follows:

  • January 6, 2010 – Hunting the GEMS of Squaw
    January 20, 2010 – Guest Appearance by Female Big Mountain Skier
    February 3, 2010 – EARLY UP (Pray for powder) Start Time: 8:15 AM
    March 3, 2010 – On the EDGE of Squaw
    March 17, 2010 – Pot Pourri
    March 31, 2010 – End of Season WOW Party, Place and Time TBA

See the Squaw Valley website at www.squaw.com for more details.

Photos by Inga Aksamit

The author wishes to express gratitude to Squaw Valley for hosting her at the WOW clinic.

See related articles at Examiner.com

Chilkoot Trail Trailhead

As we ascended 3500 feet from sea to summit on the 33 mile Chilkoot Trail my thoughts wandered back to the footsteps that came before us, back to the Klondike gold seekers of the 1890’s, and even further back, to the original bushwhackers who created and controlled the trail centuries ago. The indigenous Tlingit’s (pronounced klinkit), tall and rugged warriors of the north, were known for their wilderness skills and aggressive nature. Their footsteps pounded the arduous “Grease Trail” up and over the Chilkoot Pass to carry their oolichan (an oily smelt) harvest up the trail to trade with the interior Athabaskans in exchange for furs, tanned hides and copper. The path they carved out of the thick forest and solid granite supported our footfalls in a passage back in time.

White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad

My husband, Steve, and I became fascinated with this historic trail, known as the Klondike Gold Rush International Historical Park, on a visit to Skagway, Alaska many years ago. While riding the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad we spotted some backpackers and the seed was planted. We plotted, planned, organized and finally stalled, mostly because I had no backpacking experience whatsoever. We began hiking more, then strapped on backpacks for weekend trips, finally building up enough stamina to face the rigors of a five day wilderness trip. Plans were laid, books were read, internet searches completed. Tickets to Juneau and Skagway were purchased and we were committed. Friends, Jim and Julie, had also become fascinated with the history of the area, and accompanied us.

I now have countless backpacking trips under my belt, many in very beautiful places. Most have been in wilderness areas on less popular trails than the Chilkoot Trail; all were easier to get to. But the Chilkoot Trail is special, and while the natural beauty is stunning in its own right and the history fascinating, it contains other unique features. Half is on the American side of the border, while the other half is on the Canadian side. The two halves are not only divided by an international border at the 3500 foot apex, but by differing topography. The American side receives all the drippy, misty, drizzly, wet weather the Northwest can throw at it; consequently is green and lush, populated by hundreds of multi-hued mushrooms nestled beneath the towering cedars, leafy cottonwoods and sturdy Sitka spruce. Drier and colder, the Canadian side, initially above the tree line, is full of great slabs of granite, gurgling streams and wide open meadows, punctuated by a growing chain of crystalline, azure lakes that form the headwaters of the mighty Yukon River.

Irene Glacier

Getting a late start on the first day we hiked the scant 5 miles to Finnegan’s Point Camp on a gentle incline, traversing though boggy sections on narrow boardwalks. Directly across the Taiya River we could see the hanging Irene glacier forming a foaming waterfall. As we sat on the side of the river with binoculars in hand, we gazed at the snow and water sculpture high in the heavens and discussed bears. Julie, a professional firefighter and experienced outdoorswoman, has an irrational fear of bears, causing most conversations to veer toward some analysis of current bear dangers, sprinkled with regret over not acquiring bear repellent (pepper spray) in Skagway. While my head was filled with the ghosts of past footsteps, Julie’s thoughts were squarely focused on the bruins we shared the trail with in the present. We examined every steaming pile of berry-filled bear scat, investigated every twig snap, compared and contrasted features of black and the more aggressive brown (grizzly) bears, and recounted every bear story we could think of. Although we told her we had never actually seen a bear on any of our many trips to the North, three guys from Anchorage rolled into camp excitedly telling us of a bear sighting a few minutes prior, destroying our credibility. That was it—Julie was convinced her life would end right here on the Chilkoot Trail, and she made her peace with it. The guys spent the entire evening regaling her with stories of recent bear maulings around Anchorage, providing ready material to populate her misgivings.

Inga on a suspension bridge

The next two days we toiled up the trail, crossing wobbly suspension bridges and relentlessly gaining elevation. We cursed our 40 pound packs and regretted any small luxury that added unnecessary weight. The forest was thick with green layers of foliage. Brilliant green soft mosses, light feathery ferns, and masses of broad leafed berry bushes provided the understory beneath stately cedars piercing the mists, seeking shards of sunlight. I discovered that Tony, one of the Anchorage guys, was a fount of knowledge about berries, easily distinguishing between edible, desirable, tasteless and dangerous. I collected samples along the way and peppered him with questions every evening as he patiently identified highbush and lowbush cranberries, crowberries, red and black currants, watermelon berries and salmonberries. Julie’s fear was at a steady state as signs of bears were scarce, but the evening bear stories continued, the Anchorage guys now fueled by an avid audience.

Wooden headstone along the trail

Laboring up endless steps chiseled out of granite we had countless opportunities to observe the many artifacts from the gold rush along the trail, providing props to populate our imagination as we considered the obstacles the prospective miners had to overcome. Remnants of lonely cabins, a leather boot here, a pile of tin cans there, stoves used to chase away to penetrating chill of the Northwest, were all visible along the trail. A faded wooden headstone reminded us of the hardships that caused many to perish along the trail.

As we neared the summit that separates the US from Canada, rivulets of water cascaded down gigantic, smooth walls of exposed granite that poured with the water of a thousand shimmering waterfalls cascading from the heavens. We were out of the temperate rain forest, ready to cross into another, high alpine, land.

At Sheep’s Camp, the last camp before the summit, small clumps of people listened intently as the ranger delivered the nightly address on conditions and safety. Everyone knew that the morrow would require a great deal of effort, starting with a 5 a.m. rise. Everyone was subdued, each thinking about what they had read or heard about the next day’s journey. There was very little story telling and everyone turned in early. Anyone who didn’t make it to the base of the Scales by noon would be turned back due to avalanche danger and the decreasing likelihood that they would make it to a safe camping place by nightfall.

Julie & Steve at first sighting of snow

We rose in the dark and our group being fit, made good time to the base of the Scales where the prospectors used to have their goods weighed before entering Canada. We stowed our walking sticks and clambered up the steeply angled boulder field known as the Golden Stairs, made slippery by the dripping mists. Using handholds on the boulders we pulled ourselves up to the false summit, and then tiptoed across dangerous snow bridges to the true summit. A howling wind and precipitation provided a typical Canadian greeting. We peered through the vapor, surprised to find a huge snowfield stretching before us, despite the calendar showing that it was mid-August. After a short rest in the warming hut steaming with the effort of much exertion, we struck out, wishing for ropes and crampons, and perhaps an ice axe. A nasty traverse of footprints had thawed and refrozen providing rounded icy hillocks that prevented good purchase. As the wind caught my pack I spun around on the sastrugi more than once, using my walking stick to maintain balance, conscious of the boulders lining the shore of the iceberg-filled Crater Lake below. A fall here would be dangerous indeed, and I breathed a sign of relief when we exited the snowfield. Many more snowfields followed, but none as dodgy. The constant danger of avalanches kept us moving, while the sun tantalized us with the promise of blue skies enticed us down the trail. Gradually, the weather improved and glittering blue, crystal clear lakes beckoned, forming the headwaters of the Yukon River. Improbably beginning these 33 miles from the sea, the Yukon River is forced into a tortuous course that takes it 2,000 miles north and then west to the Bering Sea.

Deep Lake

We made good time, passing Happy Camp where most hikers stop, instead opting to continue another mile to the less populated camp at Deep Lake. We arrived nine hours after starting and then listened to the recounting of the summit tales as people followed, some taking significantly more than 12 hours. The tension released, everyone was in a celebratory, chatty mood. Small bottles of libations appeared and stories once again flowed. A ranger appeared from the Canadian side, clutching bear spray in one hand, her radio in the other. Looking a bit shaken, she had just seen two large bears, one black and one brown, stoking Julie’s fears once again. Luckily fatigue overcame us and we retreated into our tents early.

Jim and Julie had to hustle to catch the train the next day, while we were planning to make our way down in a more leisurely fashion, so when we arose they had already departed. We took our time breaking camp and set off, munching on fresh blueberries from the bushes along the trail. Early in the afternoon we rounded a corner to see a brown snout poking inquisitively from the bushes. As much as we had been surrounded by bear talk the entire trip we were shocked to actually see the little guy. He looked like a juvenile, and he was definitely more afraid of us than we were him, wheeling around and crashing through the brush as he beat a path away from us. We were a bit chastened though, wondering if more of the bruins were around. I wanted to hurry down the trail, but Steve was having some technical difficulty with his pack and wanted to stop and make some adjustments. While I stood nervously scanning the brush, the guys from Anchorage rounded the corner, to my great relief. I knew Brian was carrying bear spray so I helped Steve quickly stow his gear while we filled them in, and then shadowed them on the trail.

Bear (courtesy of G Morgan)

A few miles down the road we had mostly forgotten the bear encounter when we came upon the guys from Anchorage peering through their binoculars at a larger black bear off in the distance. We were nearing Lindeman Camp, where we had been warned of recent bear activity and it was living up to the reports. Another couple joined our growing group and we moved together down the trail toward camp. We heard twigs snapping on the hill above us and found ourselves looking directly at a large bear headed directly toward us. Several of us moved quickly forward, while other held back, with the trajectory of the bear now splitting our group in half. We waited awhile and were grateful to see our friends rejoin us, exulting over their close up photos of the bear. While I thought their behavior a little crazy, I appreciated Greg’s close-up bear photos later. The trail curved back around the hill in a lazy switchback, so we found ourselves again approaching the path the bear was taking down the hill. We stopped to watch him roll some stones around, unearthing something delectable. We debated our next course of action and decided to keep moving down the trail. When we made the final switchback around the hill we joined the bear one more time at the sign announcing that we had made Lindeman Camp, but we didn’t feel very welcome at this end of the large camp. The bear showed no signs of fear toward our group, and also no signs of wanting to move on. So we did a little dance, keeping the large sign between our group and the bear, adjusting our position as he adjusted his. This went on for some time until he ambled off toward the outhouse, leaving us a window of opportunity to dash to the other end of the camp. After the ranger said the bear had swiped an unoccupied tent the day before, ripping into the nylon we debated about staying there the night, but ultimately decided to risk it because we wanted to visit the small tent museum chronicling the Klondike gold rush, and the interior Athabaskan and coastal Tlingit tribes. We were more than careful about packing any and all food into the bear-proof lockers provided. Once we settled down we enjoyed the beautiful views of Lake Lindeman, took a brisk swim in the warmer (but still chilly) waters and enjoyed a sunny afternoon relaxing and perusing the museum. Jim and Julie missed the excitement of the bear sightings, but have plenty of second-hand bear stories to tell, courtesy of our camp mates. We slept soundly that night, peacefully co-existing with the bruins and anticipating the end of this portion of the trip.

Inga with Greg, Tony & Brian (holding bear spray)

The next day we hiked the easy, mostly level path to enormous Bennett Lake where we would catch the White Pass and Yukon Route train to Whitehorse, seeing ample evidence of bears as large footprints appeared in the soft mud. We tapped our walking sticks endlessly to announce our progress, tap, tap, tapping our way down the trail. We stopped for lunch at serene and beautiful Bare Loon Lake, listening to the plaintive call of the loons reverberating across the lake. Reaching Bennett Lake in the afternoon we pitched our tent along the shore and examined the many artifacts from the thousands of gold rush seekers who gathered on the shore to build their small rafts and set off on the watery highway down the Yukon River to Dawson City. They were all hoping to find riches, but most found only the adventure of a lifetime as they learned the secrets to survival in a harsh northern land from those who had existed there for centuries. We felt privileged to walk in their footsteps, conscious of their dreams echoing in the forest, with a heightened appreciation of the ancient ways of the Tlingit people.

Information:

Parks Canada, Chilkoot Trail: Permits and reservation information
http://www.pc.gc.ca/lhn-nhs/yt/chilkoot/activ/activ1a.aspx

U.S. National Parks Service: Chilkoot Trail
http://www.nps.gov/klgo/planyourvisit/chilkoottrail.htm

Detailed trail description (1998): http://www.explorenorth.com/library/yafeatures/bl-Chilkoot1.htm

White Pass & Yukon Railroad
www.wpyr.com

Posted by: ingaaksamit | December 6, 2009

Villa Vera Puerto Mio, Zihuatanejo

Villa Vera Puerto Mio, Zihuatanejo

Villa Vera Puerto Mio, the Raintree interval ownership (and RCI, a large worldwide vacation exchange compary) offering in Zihuatanejo, is located in the Puerto Mio area. Zihuatanejo, positioned on the West coast of Mexico roughly between Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco, is perhaps not as well known as Puerto Vallarta, but offers many similar charms, especially when compared to Puerto Vallarta of days gone by.

Zihuatanejo has the good fortune to be located on a perfect crescent of a bay, with distinct zones. Puerto Mio, clinging to a steep rocky promontory, anchors the northern end of the crescent, offering stellar views of the bay and Playa las Gatas.

Pool at Villa Vera

Villa Vera, perched on the hill that makes up Puerto Mio, is an intimate hotel modeled in a villa style, but not individual villas. Think of it as more of a large villa where daily rhythms of life are carried out in a central gathering space. The open air restaurant, Altura, sits at the apex of the central area, where most guests enjoy breakfast and at least a dinner or two. Cascading down several levels are lounging areas terminating in a sapphire blue pool perfectly sited to draw the eye from the placid water of the pool to the open ocean beyond. Many guests move straight from the breakfast table to the lounging area, where the same friendly wait staff provides efficient lunch, happy hour and dinner service.

With only 22 rooms Villa Vera guests soon get to know each other at least by sight, and familiar faces can be seen at meal times and by the pool. When we visited in November 2009, Caesar, the waiter, anticipated our routine requests by the second day, and Antonio, the concierge, offered numerous suggestions about different activities and directions on how to navigate town. Several excursions are offered through the hotel, including sport fishing, sunset cruises, snorkeling and tours of the countryside. The staff all spoke excellent English and were very helpful and accommodating. For example, though the sign stated that Happy Hour started at 6 pm, with 2-for1 drinks, it actually seemed to start whenever one wanted it to, resulting in an excess of Pacifico at our table, which we managed to succumb to.

Altura Restaurant at Villa Vera

The restaurant, Altura, serves American and Mexican breakfast favorites, such as huevos rancheros, French toast, tropical fruit plates and hash browned potatoes. Lunches consisted mainly of tacos, quesadillas and soups. The dinner menu, like many in Zihuatanejo, took advantage of the abundant seafood, featuring shrimp and other seafood, prepared simply to take advantage of the fresh flavors. While not as spicy as other local restaurants the quality food was prepared well.

Junior suite at Villa Vera

We had a junior suite at Villa Vera, which featured a sitting room, desk and king sized bed. A private deck faced Bahia Zihuatanejo (Zihuatanejo Bay), screened from the blazing morning sun by fronds from large palm trees outside. A spacious tiled shower had an abundance of hot water at all times of the day. The efficient air conditioner and two fans cooled the room down in a matter of minutes.

The taxi ride from the airport takes about 15 minutes and as you go through town it feels like you come out the other side and keep going. This is a bit deceptive as Villa Vera is really quite close to the downtown core by footbridge, but the taxis have to take a circuitous route. Once deposited at the hotel we never took another taxi until we returned to the airport. A set of stairs to the side of the pool leads to a wide, shaded cobblestone road that descends the hill (veering to the left at the only “Y”), skirts the bay where local fisherman are usually catching baitfish with a gaggle of kids, using plastic water bottles to wrap the line in place of a fishing rod and reel. A footbridge leads directly into the downtown core. It’s an easy 10 minute walk, but the return trip requires a bit more fortitude as it does have some steep sections. Since Villa Vera has no gym we regarded our once or twice a day hikes up the hill as our exercise, hopefully working off a Pacifico or two.

There is no business center at Villa Vera but if you have your own computer the “internet engineer” will set you up with a code to access the wireless broadband service, which works in the lobby and center core (restaurant and pool areas) for one small fee for the week.

Villa Vera Puerto Mio is a delightful place to relax and escape from the pressures of the real world, and is in an excellent location to take advantage of the charms and activities of Zihuatanejo. It is an intimate hotel offering personalized service and stunning views of the bay.

See related articles on Mexico.

Information:
Villa Vera Peurto Mio
Paseo del Morro No. 5
Col. El Almacen
Zihuatanejo, Guerrero, C.P. 40880
Mexico
Tel: (755) 553 81 65/66/67
Email: villaverapuertomio@clubregina.com

Photos by Inga Aksamit

Posted by: ingaaksamit | December 3, 2009

Zihuatanejo retains the soul of a fishing village

Zihuatanejo Bay

Zihuatanejo, located on the Pacific side of Mexico roughly between Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco, is a charming fishing village that has grown beyond its roots but still manages to retain its original character, despite a huge surge in visits when its nearby neighbor, Ixtapa was built in the 1970s. With perpetually sunny weather in the winter (dry season), warm temperatures and inviting waters it is a perfect place to escape the winter doldrums.

Zihuatanejo—the mere mention of the name evokes a dreamy trance-like state for anyone who has seen the movie the Shawshank Redemption with Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins, whose characters held a vision of the idyllic bayside village in their mind’s eye, carrying them through terribly long years in prison.

Today Zihuatanejo (or “Zihua”) has a few short blocks of tourist shops, bars and restaurants, but the town rolls up pretty early at night, and most evenings the locals outnumber the tourists by a large number as they enjoy the cool breezes at the waterfront.

Zihuatanejo has the good fortune to be located on a perfect crescent of a bay, with several distinct zones. Puerto Mio, clinging to a steep rocky promontory, anchors the northern end of the crescent, offering stellar views of the bay and Playa las Gatas. Next, the focal point of the town of Zihuatanejo can be found, with the main pier and fishing fleet located near the footbridge that connects Puerto Mio with town. Hugging the base of the crescent is Playa la Ropa, a perfect swimming beach. Securing the far end of the crescent is Playa las Gatas, good for snorkeling.

Lodging

Villa Vera, Puerto Mio

Accommodations in Zihuatanejo tend to be of the boutique variety, in addition to numerous time-share offerings from such purveyors as Raintree, RCI and Intrawest. Full service luxury resorts can be found in nearby Ixtapa but not in Zihuatanejo. Raintree’s Villa Vera is located in Puerto Mio, where we stayed. Intrawest and RCI facilities can be found in the Playa la Ropa area. Many independent boutique hotels are scattered throughout Puerto Mio and Zihuatanejo proper. A travel agent or a search through ZihuaRob’s extensive website can be an effective way to locate lodging options.

Restaurants

There are numerous small restaurants in Zihuatanejo and lining the beaches and many serve similar fare, usually consisting of fish, soft tacos and quesadillas filled with cheese, shrimp or fish. We found several restaurants that stood out from the rest. We were staying in Puerto Mio and encountered two restaurants on the west side of the footbridge that one might not discover if staying in other areas of Zihuatanejo.

Chili Relleno at Lety's Restaurant

Lety’s Restaurant is on the second floor of a building across from the footbridge. The downstairs is a bar frequented by successful fishing expeditions and was boisterous in the late afternoons. Lety’s featured a couple of unusual salads, one an octopus salad which arrived in a large bowl, with an outsized portion of the most tender octopus chunks I’ve ever tasted in a soupy tomato salsa that tasted faintly sweet. The other was a lobster salad, an equally large quantity of lobster finely chopped with jicama and sweet onions, reminiscent of Walla Walla sweet onions. I had a chili relleno unlike any I’ve had in the past. The chili was an enormous poblano chili, roasted to tender perfection and stuffed with an exuberant amount of octopus, clams and shrimp burst forth when incised. The accompanying sauce was creamy and piquant. The dish was truly delectable. My husband, Steve, ordered the tamarind shrimp, with the freshest shrimp smothered in a tangy, slightly citrusy tamarind sauce that was savory and spicy without

Inga & Lety

being fiery hot. To increase the heat factor you need only add a small amount of the salsa accompanying the chips—no tourist salsa here. It was nice to see a mix of Mexican and American patrons enjoying Lety’s flavorful dishes, and it was a delight to meet Lety when she emerged from her hot kitchen to inquire as to how we enjoyed the meal—very much, thank you. We washed the meal down with glasses of Santa Sylvia, a Mexican white wine that was young, fruity and quite drinkable. The entire bill was 250 pesos (US$20).

Casa Bahia was another restaurant we sampled on our way down to the footbridge. Located a bit further up the hill from Lety’s it clings to the side of the road overlooking Zihuatanejo Bay. This restaurant is the perfect place for a romantic dinner. They have two levels and the upper level is open to the stars and looks out onto the water. The ambiance is lovely and the food, while not as adventurous as Lety’s was quite palatable. Shrimp kebabs, simply grilled to preserve the fresh flavors, and blackened tuna well prepared and tasty. Consistent with the more refined ambiance, Casa Bahia was a little more expensive with entrees running 200-400 pesos each (US$15-30)

In Zihuatanejo proper we enjoyed Tamales Y Atoles Any. Steve loves tamales so that became a must-see destination that didn’t disappoint. The multiple kinds of tamales we tried were the most moist and tender of any we’ve had, even bare with no salsa. The poblano tamale came wrapped in a corn husk. My favorite were the pork tamales wrapped in plantain leaves which made the tamale very succulent, and was topped with a spicy red sauce. On a subsequent visit we enjoyed a huge bowl of pozole, a traditional dish originating in pre-Columbian times (circa 1500 CE). We went on a Thursday night, which is pozole night at many Zihuatanejo restaurants, but Any serves it every night. Pozole is a stew made with hominy and pork surrounded by many accompaniments in small bowls. We added radishes, sweet onion, jalapeno peppers (a modest amount), red chilis, oregano, lime, cheese and avocado. Other accompaniments include fried pork rind, a small tortilla filled with black beans and corn flour biscuits. Every bowl comes with a shot of mezcal from Sierra de Vallecitos. That and a nice bottle of Blanc de Blanc from Casa Pedro Dominguez 2007 had us feeling very relaxed. One night the restaurant was populated mostly with gringos, but another night we were the only Americans in a room full of Mexicans—always a sign of good food.

Activities

Playa las Gatas

After a day relaxing at the pool at Villa Vera we were ready to do some exploring. Zihuatanejo offers a wide range of “fun in the sun” activities. Right next to the footbridge the main pier juts into the bay. We took the water taxi over to Playa las Gatas, named for the nurse sharks (previously known as catsharks) that used to ply these waters. Playa las Gatas has a coral reef that attracts colorful tropical fish and a protected basin. The 10 minute water taxi costs 35 pesos per person and the taxis are plentiful. The last boat returns at 5:30 p.m. and there is sometimes a short wait as the beach clears out. A 2 part ticket is issued, with one section for each ride, so it’s important to retain the return ticket.

The beach is lined with restaurants that all serve the same food and beverage, and provide lounge chairs for the day, so pick an operator you like and settle in for the day. Snorkel gear can be rented at most establishments as well. The snorkeling is best at the end of the reef closest to the pier. As you get out toward the reef keep a lookout for sea urchins, which could negatively affect your vacation. You can’t miss them because they are spiky, large and anchored to the coral but because of their presence we didn’t go very far in the water without our mask on so we could see what we might be stepping on.

Sport fishing is hugely popular in Zihuatanejo, and judging by what we saw coming off the boats every day, very successful. Marlin, sailfish, mahi mahi and tuna are the predominant catches. Sport fishing expeditions can be arranged through most hotels, or arrangements can be made at the pier. At Villa Vera the cooks will prepare your fish for you.

Playa la Ropa, so named for silks that washed ashore from a wrecked Chinese ship, is an excellent swimming beach, which also offers parasailing, banana boat rides (where riders straddle a yellow tube being pulled by a power boat and usually go flying off into the water amid squeals of delight).

Sailing catamarans are a wonderful way to enjoy the water and sunset cruises are available in the evenings. They also provide access to Playa Manzanillo (not to be confused with a large town of the same name up the coast toward Puerto Vallarta), an otherwise inaccessible beach around the southern end of the bay on the Pacific Ocean. The skipper can drop you off with your picnic lunch and fetch you later in the day.

Shopping

In the tourist section of Zihua there are some beautiful examples of local pottery, silver jewelry, clothing and crafts, in addition to the usual knickknacks. The tourist core smoothly transitions into the real town with appliance stores, music stores, pharmacies and various services surrounding a large food market. We enjoyed being able to mingle with locals instead of feeling like we were in a tourist bubble.

Cruise ships pull into town every few days, contributing to a profusion of tourist shops in the blocks nearest to the pier. The huge ships, out of all proportion to anything in Zihuatanejo, pull into the entrance of the bay between Puerto Mio and Playa las Gatas early in the morning and start ferrying people to the pier in tiny craft, making about a million trips, then pull up anchor and silently slide out of the bay between 3 and 5 p.m. The sudden influx of people is noticeable, as are the increase in prices, but it’s short lived. If you plan it right, as we did inadvertently, you can check the cruise schedule with the hotel staff and plan to go to Ixtapa or Manzanillo on cruise day and miss the whole episode.

This town likes to party!

The first evening that we strolled around town we were pleasantly surprised to find a bustling amount of activity at the town square on the beach, to discover that we were in the midst of “Social Sunday”, a weekly event. There were many food stalls serving excellent tacos, ice cream and other foods, a live band and a horde of small children following a bubble-blowing clown like the Pied Piper in the basketball court. Ninety percent of the people were locals so even though we were in the “tourist” area of town, it is very apparent that the real people who live in town still claim the public spaces as their own.

The next evening we went to an early dinner and saw another crowd gathered at the small outdoor amphitheater at the beach square. Upon investigation we found families enthralled by a slap-stick performance of clowns that made the kids dissolve in laughter and squeals with their physical comedy.

Folklorico Dance

Another afternoon we were walking away from the beach and found another town square anchoring the downtown business district. Noting a large assembly we hurried over to the square to find a troupe of small children dressed in traditional folklorico dance costumes. We settled into plastic chairs and were fascinated by the skill and grace of the small children. Older children and adults performed as well in their brilliantly colored costumes, flouncing and whipping their voluminous skirts. One couple performed a dance skit illustrating the tried and true persistence of unrequited love in a moving and humorous sketch.

Zihuatanejo—a town retaining its character

We thoroughly enjoyed Zihutaenjo, finding it delightfully Mexican and retaining its culture while enjoying the economic diversity that being a tourist destination brings. We found it easy to get around, with many people who spoke enough English that we had a hard time practicing our Spanish. The townspeople were friendly, always willing to share stories about their town, and love to have a good time in the cool evenings.

See related articles on Mexico.

Photos by Inga Aksamit

Older Posts »

Categories