Part Three of Canada’s West Coast – Vancouver Island

In Part Three of my article on Canada’s West Coast, my wife and I explore a small part of Vancouver Island, from Nanaimo to Victoria, along the island’s southeast coast. From the mainland, you can catch ferries from north or south Vancouver to take you to Nanaimo or Swartz Bay. Another ferry crosses further north.

Coming from the Sunshine Coast, we took the ferry back to Horseshoe Bay in North Vancouver and then another one to Nanaimo. The second ferry ride was about an hour and forty minutes. If you are trying to make connections like this, be sure to check out ferry schedules at BC Ferries. You can also fly if you don’t have a car and want to save time. 

Nanaimo: Home of the Famous Dessert

The waterfront City of Nanaimo is scenic and easy to navigate, with less than one hundred thousand people. This was my second visit to the city. Sadly, we did not spend too much time there on either occasion. Cathryn and I had two reasons to visit Nanaimo on this trip. First, to visit some good friends who live there, and second, to drive along the coast to Victoria.

Any sweet tooth will be happy in this city. It’s home to the world-famous Nanaimo bar, made in several flavors and sold everywhere. We spent most of our visit on the scenic waterfront and on Protection Island, a 10-minute ferry ride from the city harbor. Our friends took us to the island for dinner, where we dined at the Dinghy Dock Pub, a cool floating restaurant that offered great views of the Nanaimo harbor.

The food was typical pub grub, but with an emphasis on fresh seafood. Cathryn’s highlight of our mini excursion was getting up close and personal with a giant purple starfish living on the side of a floating dock. The pub was a cool place to sit and watch seaplanes taking off and landing in the harbor. 

Chemainus, A Vancouver Island Secret

In our experience, the best way to get good advice and recommendations while travelling is from locals. One of our resident friends proved this theory by recommending we stop in the little town of Chemainus on the drive south to Victoria. Being off the inland highway and on the waterfront, we would have driven right on by completely unaware of this cool pit stop.

Like many former logging towns in British Columbia, Chemainus has had to rediscover itself to stay on the map and draw visitors off the bypass. Fifty-three outdoor murals and colorful turn-of-the-century buildings that have been painstakingly restored make this town the perfect place to get out and stretch your legs. There are unique shops to browse, some with antiques far cheaper than those in bigger cities. And there are places to grab a beer, lunch, ice cream, or even a Nanaimo bar.

Victoria, A Highlight of Vancouver Island

Some think it’s Vancouver, but the City of Victoria is the capital of British Columbia. We spent five days exploring this beautiful waterfront city, barely enough time to see and do it all. From the time we pulled into the driveway at our waterfront Airbnb, we knew we were in for a treat. Our unit was the lower level of a ranch-style home. We had an awesome view of the tree-lined park and walking trail that parallels the river gorge across the street. 

All we had to do was follow Gorge Road to get downtown and to the harbor front. The Victorian and century-old buildings capture your eye, with the giant Fairmont Hotel stealing the show, overlooking the main harbor. And just when you’ve focused on that, the historic dome-topped government building nearby screams for attention. Be sure to check it out at night when it’s all lit up. For a great dinner, try Finn’s Seafood, an upscale restaurant with a great deck.

While driving around to get a feel for the city, we discovered great little neighborhoods with pop-up markets. A section of Government Street, downtown, is a pedestrian mall where you can walk to Chinatown and inner-city market squares. The whole core and waterfront are easily walkable. 

Chinatown and Fan Tan Alley

With a population of a hundred thousand people, Victoria looks bigger than Nanaimo. However, it’s easily walkable with waterfront boardwalks and cool neighborhoods like Chinatown. Victoria’s Chinatown is the oldest in Canada. It is only second to San Francisco in North America. The neighborhood also boasts the world-famous Don Mee Chinese Restaurant. We ate the highly recommended dim sum brunch there, and it was second to none. 

As in the United States, thousands of Chinese immigrated to western Canada to help build the railroads that would stretch across the country. They also worked in the mines. Three thousand settled in Chinatown by 1911, the largest population of Chinese in Canada for a decade. 

A famous landmark is Fan Tan Alley, a narrow walkway that was once lined by brothels and opium dens. If you like to explore, don’t stop there. I found more cool alleys with hidden shops, cafes, and cute patios belonging to private apartments. There are also Chinese grocery stores and a giant Chinese-inspired arch that marks the main street.

Fisherman’s Wharf

If you don’t have wheels, take public transportation or a water taxi further into the harbor’s mouth to Fisherman’s Wharf. With its colorful houseboats, shops, and restaurants, it’s the perfect place to spend the afternoon sipping on a cold beer or grabbing a bite to eat. Add people watching to that list. Cathryn spotted Canada’s New Democratic Party leader, Jagmeet Singh, took a selfie with him, and found out he’s from our hometown in Windsor. 

If you want a different perspective of Fisherman’s Wharf, jump on one of the water taxis and take a tour. They’ll do a loop of Vancouver Island’s picturesque harbor or drop you off anywhere else along the waterfront. The wharf is family-friendly. Gazing at the brilliantly colored houseboats and buildings, I wanted to break out my crayons and a coloring book.

Butchart Gardens

To me, Butchart Gardens is a world-class example of how to recycle planet earth after it’s been ravaged by man and make it even more beautiful. About a half-hour drive (take the scenic route) from downtown, the extensive gardens were created in an old gravel pit, with giant trees and thousands of colorful flowers expertly planted in 55 acres of manicured gardens. There is every type and color of annual, perennial, shrub, and tree imaginable. 

Statuary, garden ornaments, and ponds linked by winding and shaded paths take you on a magical journey through one of man and mother nature’s finest accomplishments. We thought the admission price was a bit steep at $31 (Can) each but found it worthwhile. You could spend a whole day wandering through the themed gardens, but we found a few hours in hot weather was enough. 

The Scenic Coastline of Vancouver Island

If you have a vehicle, there are other places to explore along the coast. We drove from Fisherman’s Wharf, staying along the water on Dallas Road, which heads east and follows the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Dallas becomes Crescent Road, and then Beach Drive, which turns north and continues along the coast. Views of the Salish Sea and Haro Strait are amazing from the winding and hilly road and scenic overlook. 

In conclusion, Cathryn and I thoroughly enjoyed the small part of Canada’s west coast that we visited. While the City of Vancouver and the Sunshine Coast were fun to explore, we liked Vancouver Island and Victoria the most. If you enjoyed this segment of Canada’s West Coast, be sure to check out Parts One and Two here at Dreams Abroad. You can see more of my travel stories on my personal website

Fun From the Heights: Montaña Redonda

Aura swinging on the Montaña RedondaThe Dominican Republic is a country shimmering with a beauty that makes people fall in love. It is home to beaches that turn the heads of its visitors, with several considered amongst the best in the world. While it is true that this paradise has crystal-clear waters and white sand, the Dominican Republic is more than beaches. This Caribbean island has a series of places that frame stunning views, sending your jaw crashing to the floor. Places such as these show the unique side of this tropical paradise. One place that shows what the island is made of is the Montaña Redonda.

Location

You will find Montaña Redonda (Round Mountain) in Miches. This is a municipality in the province of El Seibo which is located in the eastern region of the Dominican Republic.

The best way to reach Montaña Redonda is by vehicle. Many people arrive by bus since Montaña Redonda is a popular destination offered by many of the island’s tour packages.

If you choose to drive to Miches yourself, be mindful on the way. The road has as many curves, twists, and turns as it does signs. Visit Montaña Redonda early in the day in order to leave Miches before dark to reduce the possibility of an accident.

Gorgeous farmland.

Once in Miches, arriving at Montaña Redonda is easy. With a GPS, people can enjoy access to the best views. You need to go up the mountain in a four-wheel drive as it’s too big a job for a smaller car. When getting to the base, there is a sort of taxi service to ferry you up the mountain, starting at $5.

What to do on Montaña Redonda

Once on top of the mountain, one of the first things to admire is the beautiful landscape that the height of the place offers. People can see all the green valleys famous in that part of the country. The natural environment is one of the greatest attractions of the place.

Apart from appreciating the flora, the Montaña has swings as part of the entertainment for visitors. When swinging above all the trees in the valley, a person can feel like they are falling. Fortunately, there is nothing to worry about; they are safe. Also at the top are hammocks where visitors can lie down and rest while taking in the views.

It is important to bring water and use good sun protection. At the top of the mountain, the sun is very strong and there’s a good chance of getting a sunburn. If you forget to pack a snack, no worries. On top of the mountain, there is a restaurant that specializes in a dish called Moro de Guandules con Coco. This is rice prepared with coconut milk and pigeon peas, something very typical here. Fried fish is another popular item on the menu. Besides juices and soda like Coca-Cola, people can drink the Dominican beer called Presidente. The prices are affordable — $8 and above will fill you up in style.

Something that all visitors usually do when they arrive at Montaña Redonda is to take pictures, but from a different perspective. The photographs look like you are flying over the mountain as you play on the swing. There are people in the mountains who will take your photo for you so you can get the best shot.

What other activities can be done while on Montaña Redonda?

After having enjoyed the natural beauty from the vantage point of Montaña Redonda’s peak, there are plenty of other activities Miches offers. These include Playa Esmeralda. This virgin beach is one of the most secluded in the entire country. To get to the beach, it is advisable to use a four-wheel drive vehicle since the road is not in very good condition. Nonetheless, it is still worth the journey. After a very hot day on Montaña Redonda, swimming in crystal clear water and sunning yourself on the white sand is an excellent way to end a stay in Miches.

A Dominican Republic beach with white sand and blue waters

by Aura De Los Santos

Top Seven Reasons to Visit Sa Pa, Vietnam

Ed GagnonEdmond Gagnon grew up in Canada. A retired detective, Ed now travels the world between writing books. One of the most unique places he’s visited on his journey was Vietnam. In this quick preview, Ed shares seven reasons to visit Sa Pa, Vietnam, which he’s written about in his book, A Casual Traveler

Top Seven Reasons to Visit Sa Pa, Vietnam

When it comes to traveling, I usually venture out on my own to explore new places. In the case of Sa Pa, in Vietnam, I booked a no-brainer packaged excursion from my hotel in Hanoi. Not able to read or understand the language, I felt it was the sensible thing to do. The trip included all travel arrangements, lodging, and two days of trekking in the Hoang Lien Son Mountains, just south of the Chinese border. 

After a snafu on the overnight train and a shuttle bus kerfuffle, I found myself standing on the balcony of my Sa Pa hotel. The hotel balcony overlooked the mind-blowing Muong Hoa Valley, nestled in the highest mountains in Vietnam. I found it hard to imagine what I was about to experience hiking this remote alpine paradise. 

A Unique & Exotic Place

People say that Vietnam is a unique and exotic destination to explore and they are right. But if you really want to see a truly special place, travel 350 kilometers northwest of the capital city, Hanoi. From there, Sa Pa can be easily reached by bus or train. It’s the last Vietnamese outpost, before Lao Cai, a city on the China border. 

Sa Pa is a popular trekking base. Its 10,000 inhabitants consist mostly of people from the Hmong, Tay, and Dao hill tribes. Their villages are scattered throughout the remote valley. Some are only accessible on foot or by serious all-terrain vehicles. No paved roads exist between the hamlets. Much of what is needed is carried in wicker baskets by the local women. 

A photo of some of the village deliveries

Strolling the main streets in Sa Pa is like walking backwards into time. Uniquely clad women line the sidewalks selling their hand-crafted goods — some with woven baskets and others with colorful blankets, tablecloths, and placemats. Some, wearing the classic straw lampshade hats, sell fresh produce grown locally.  

Mountain Trekking

I’m not what you’d call an avid hiker, but when I saw the pictures and read about trekking through the mountains around Sa Pa, I knew it was an adventure I couldn’t pass up. The agents told me in advance that the hike was fairly rigorous and certainly not for the faint of heart. My guide gave me a taste of what I was in for on the afternoon of my arrival. She called it a warm-up, a short jaunt through town along paved roads and easy paths.

The half-day trek seemed easy at first, mostly because it meandered downhill. We walked along a ridge on the edge of town, taking in awesome views of the valley below. Lam allowed me a beer break at a cute little village café where I gawked at the huge mountains that marked the border with China. At this point, my guide sent a woman in our foursome back to the hotel. She’d gotten drunk from a hidden canteen she carried, and my guide was afraid she might fall down the mountain. 

The hike back to the hotel was a bit harder because it was all uphill. The incline made my calf muscles tingle, and the thinner air at that elevation had me breathing heavy. I felt proud upon the completion of my half-day hike. Nonetheless, my guide, Lam, burst my bubble saying it was easy and the full-day trek the next day would be much harder.  

The Real Deal

I awoke to fog so thick I could barely find Lam outside the front doors of my hotel. It was 9 AM, and upon seeing me she said, ‘we go now’. Walking through the low-lying clouds reminded me of entering a steam bath. I heard roosters crowing but couldn’t see anything on either side of the wet and slippery path. Some local kids tried to sell me a walking stick, but I was clueless as to what lay ahead and didn’t buy one. 

It didn’t take long to get off the beaten path, a place where only mountain goats and experienced locals trekked. I found myself balancing on the edge of soggy rice paddies and figured it was only a matter of time before I fell into one. Often, I lost sight of Lam because of my slow pace, only to find her further along the path waiting for me. I tripped and stumbled over loose boulders and rocks. Lam told me my feet were too big. 

Hungry and soaked from sweat, I eventually made it to our lunch stop. It was a picnic area with a covered patio and outdoor kitchen, perched on the edge of a gorge. I heard what sounded like rushing water but the fog obscured anything below me. An eerie-looking cable bridge shrouded in fog led to the other side of the river. We ate a fresh salad and a tasty chicken stir fry for lunch.  

Amazing Scenery

After lunch, we headed across the bridge and into another valley. Like a bedsheet being drawn back, the fog slowly retreated, revealing bright green rice paddies built on terraces that climbed the side of the mountains. Puffy cotton ball clouds sat atop the rocky peaks, crested by powder- blue sky. It was rural and rugged and wickedly wonderful all at the same time.   

Oxen and Water Buffalo grazed in fields and fat pigs played in muddy pens. Village men used hand tools to chisel and carve new terraces into the mountainside for their rice paddies. Dirty-faced and bare-bottomed children chewed on sugar cane and played, oblivious to the large and sweaty white man grunting and puffing on his way by. 

Two village children

Colorful Hill Tribes

The indigenous people were more colorful than the scenic valley they called home. Lam explained to me how at the age of 12, their culture expects women to weave, sew, and dye the materials to make their own clothes. The deep red and indigo colors may seem haphazard to a stranger but each village has their own particular outfits, some including headdresses or knee socks. I saw one woman stirring a vat of indigo dye, another weaving a basket, and plenty of others carrying them to their villages.

The men work the fields while the women tend their children and homes. The average household comprised itself of nothing more than a grass and mud hut, some built with wood and corrugated metal that villagers hauled up the mountain manually. Lam showed me her village and checked in on her kids while I snooped around town and took some pictures. 

She’d been guiding for seven years, picking up as many languages just by conversing with trekking tourists. She only earned a few dollars a day and she worked seven days a week. Nonetheless, Lam said it was better than trying to pedal cheap souvenirs. It was no wonder to me that she was in such great shape, hiking five to ten miles every day. Her sister minded the kids while she was away at work. 

A view of the valley, one of the many reasons to visit Sa Pa

Remote Mountain Villages

Each village we came across was different, although each was mostly distinguishable by the women’s attire. Some places were so remote access could only be made on foot or by animal. Lam commented after one of my trips and near falls that if I became disabled, she would simply strap me to the back of the closest oxen to get me down the hill. The vision worried me but I liked her sense of humor. 

I saw a man fishing from a boulder about the size of a large bulldozer. It practically blocked the stream. We had to walk across fields of bowling-ball-sized rocks in one dry river bed and a rickety bamboo bridge that crossed the water. Lam went first to watch me cross. She waited until I was about half-way to say she wasn’t sure the structure would hold my weight. A picture of me on the back of a smelly beast flashed through my mind and I scurried to safety. 

Lam grinned, turned, and carried on, expecting me to play the part of a good soldier and follow the leader. Our 10k trek ended at a mountain village that eventually met up with Sa Pa via road. I had time for a well-deserved beer and reflection of my all-day awesome adventure before getting on the shuttle bus back to the hotel. I wanted to hug Lam for getting me back alive but gave her a huge tip instead.

Land of Lam

My trip to Sa Pa and trekking in the mountains was easily one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. It is a truly beautiful and unique place that I will never forget. If you’re interested in reading more about my adventures, Land of Lam can be found in my travel book, A Casual Traveler

More of my travel stories can be found on my website at www.edmondgagnon.com.

A Floridian in New York on New Year’s Eve

Cassidy, her mom, and her sister posing in front of the Rockefeller Tree on New Year's EveFor the last few years, my family and I visited New York City to celebrate New Year’s Eve. This year, our celebrations will be strictly limited to our living room thanks to the pandemic. So, I thought remembering our first New Year’s Eve trip may fill up some of the wanderlust I’ve felt since this whole thing began. This trip inspired my family to start doing family vacations. The years after, my dad and brother joined us for another New York trip, and the whole family visited Ireland the year after. Unfortunately, any plans we had for this year had been diced. I’m just glad I have the photos and memories of these trips to keep me going!

New York on New Year’s Eve

During our first trip, it was just my mom, sister, and I. We were there for an extended weekend. We felt dead set on jamming all of the New York highlights into our trip. It was also the first time we’d been to the city during winter. Although it was milder than our following trips, we splurged at a nearby winter accessories store on 7th Ave. While my mom and sister picked up a pair of wool hats, I grabbed a pair of luxurious mittens (I could write a paragraph about how wonderful these mittens are — seriously, sometimes my hands get sweaty). Unfortunately, I don’t remember the name of the shop, but definitely keep your eyes peeled for extra-warm looking hats, scarves, and mittens near the theatre district!

We spent most of our trip finding unique breakfast diners and wandering around the city. In just a few days, we managed to squeeze in a horse-carriage ride, saw a peaceful protest in a local park, and took a long walk around Central Park’s lake. Our wanderings took us to Chinatown’s Columbus Park to find a vibrant community playing table games. Plus, we visited the then-brand-new Second Avenue Subway Station, a welcome reprieve from being on our feet.

Times Square on New Year’s Eve

Thanks to my mom’s employment at an NYC-based company, she had racked up enough Hilton points to get us a hotel a short walk away from Times Square. When we stepped out onto the streets on New Year’s Eve morning, the streetscape had been completely transformed. There were police everywhere, with news vans parked on every corner. Barricades blocked the street from any cross traffic. The closer we got to Times Square, the thicker the crowds got. There were people already staking their claim to see the Ball at 10:00am, making for a grueling 14-hour wait.

NYPD preparing for New Year's Eve

A Happy Coincidence

Although we had originally planned on seeing the Ball that night, my mom, sister, and I were completely disinterested in spending one whole day in New York just waiting around. We decided to try to figure something else to do that night. The three of us spent the day exploring Chinatown and LIttle Italy. We ended the night in an Irish pub with no clear plan in sight. With minutes to spare, we decided to return to our hotel to try and see the Ball from our room. 

As we got closer to our hotel, the barricades became increasingly more secure. By the time we had reached 7th Ave, we needed a police escort to cross the street to get to our hotel. As the officer led us through the crowds, he and my mom started chatting about how we were liking New York, what our plans for the evening were, and where we were from. As it turns out, he had visited our hometown quite a few times! Halfway across the street, he stopped us and told us he could try to get us closer to the Ball. 

A Once-In-A-Lifetime Chance

The officer led us behind the police barricade giving us the OK to the other police officers standing guard. Block after block passed as we sped by what must have at least been a million people crammed onto 7th Ave. My sister and I stole shocked looks at one another the closer we got. After a few conversations with his superiors, he got us a whole TEN BLOCKS closer to the Ball, the closest they would allow civilians to be! We were right there!! He got us so close we were able to see the confetti. We sang Auld Lang Syne and New York, New York with the crowd and danced in the snow, thanking the officer profusely the whole time. It was undeniably the most magical New Year’s Eve I have ever had, to this day. 

Confetti in Times Square on New Year's Eve

After the New Year broke, the crowds quickly dispersed, and our officer friend wished us a happy New Year and a good evening. Discarded New Year’s hats and streamers littered the street and passer-bys shouted “Happy New Year!” to the sky. We knew we had experienced something we would certainly never be able to again. The whole experience felt altogether surreal. Fortunately, I had been videoing our trip the entire time and was able to capture everything on camera. The video is attached below for those interested in watching!

The Rockefeller Plaza Christmas Tree, which Cassidy and her family visited before New Year's Eve

Be Kind

Although I don’t remember the officer’s name, he gave me and my family a New Year’s Eve celebration I don’t think any of us will forget. This year, if you get the chance, be sure to tell our public workers thank you for everything they’re doing. Remember to be kind and extend a helping hand whenever you can. Although we may not be able to celebrate like normal, the holidays can still be full of love and support. Happy holidays and warm wishes to all!

Top Five Things To Do in Winnipeg, Manitoba

Winnipeg, Manitoba has a population of 800,000. It makes its home near the geographical centre of North America and Canada. You may have heard of Winnipeg if you watch National Hockey League sports highlights because of the Winnipeg Jets. Winnipeggers are very friendly. Our license plates even say “Friendly Manitoba.” 

Winnipeg’s cost of living is one of the lowest in Canada. In particular, the housing cost is below every major Canadian city except Quebec City, so Winnipeg residents can afford to save more for retirement, travel, and owning a cottage. If you can tolerate cold winters, Winnipeg’s a great place to live or retire to. 

During my career, people told me they planned on visiting Winnipeg for business. They wanted ideas about the best things to do in Winnipeg while there. These are the top five things to do in Winnipeg that I would suggest. 

Check out The Forks

Visiting the Forks is one of the best things to do in Winnipeg

The Forks is located at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, where indigenous people and settlers traded for hundreds of years. Developers converted two former warehouses into exciting markets similar to St. Lawrence Market in Toronto. The Forks Market has a tower that offers great views of downtown and the rivers. Most of the restaurants and stores here are, thankfully, local. 

The Forks Market has many shops, including a gift shop with Manitoba-made products, a local bookstore, a candy store, and a wine and spirits store. The Forks also has a luxurious and convenient boutique hotel called Inn at the Forks with a spa where you can get pampered. The food hall has several interesting restaurants and a beer and wine counter. Taste of Sri Lanka serves my favourite dish in the food hall, deviled chicken with curried eggplant.

The Forks Market is full of culinary surprises

The other building next to The Forks Market is called the Johnson Terminal. This features a large antique market in the basement. There are also gift shops, and, for kids big and small, a gigantic toy store. 

A photo of a massive ice castle

Indigenous art and culture is pervasive, including at a store called Teekca’s Aboriginal Boutique and Oodena Celebration Circle. The Circle is a natural, shallow amphitheatre that celebrates the 6,000 years of Indigenous peoples in the area. You can also take your kids or grandchildren to see a play at the Manitoba Theatre for Young People and visit the Manitoba Children’s Museum.

During the summer, people go to the Forks for concerts at the outdoor CN Stage, to see buskers, watch festivals (such as the Winnipeg International Children’s Festival and Canada Day), and take long walks along the scenic riverwalk. You can commandeer a water taxi to other downtown tourist attractions from the historic port. 

A photo of the Esplanade Riel, one of the great things to do in Winnipeg
Photo Credit: Travel Manitoba

Also in summer, you can also dine at Mon Ami Louis, a French restaurant in the middle of the Esplanade Riel bridge overlooking the Red River.  It is the only restaurant in North America that is on a bridge. This restaurant has a famous “million-dollar” toilet because of the cost to get the plumbing to the middle of the bridge, which leads to the French Quarter.  The view is spectacular while you enjoy menu items like escargots, vichyssoise, tartes flambees, and crepes. 

Ice skating is always a favorite of things to do in Winnipeg

During the winter, glide across the world’s longest skating surface along the rivers. Avoid getting yourself frozen by dropping by the fantastic warming huts along the way. Or skate while holding hands on the rink under the canopy with accompanying music.

Visit the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

A photo of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, one of the can't-miss things to do in Winnipeg

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is located next to The Forks and it cost $350 million to build. It’s a brilliant and creative structure of curved lines. The architect used bold geometry to give this building its unique charm, with three‐quarters of the walls sloped at unusual angles.

The inside of the Human Rights Museum

Visitors walk up one kilometer of ramps, which symbolizes the climb from darkness to light. They can view exhibits on each level until winding up at the Israel Asper Tower of Hope for some lovely views. The museum has a powerful and educational exhibit about the Holocaust.

Explore Assiniboine Park

A photo of Assiniboine Park, one of the best things to do in Winnipeg

Assiniboine Park is the 11th-largest urban park in Canada. It has countless tree-lined trails along the river for biking or hiking and big fields for playing cricket, Frisbee, football, and soccer. On certain summer nights, you can bring a blanket or lawn chairs to watch a movie in the park or you can enjoy a free concert or ballet performance on the Lyric Stage. 

A photo of a summer concert at Assiniboine Park

The Assiniboine Park Zoo has more than 200 species of animals spread over 80 acres. The zoo recently opened an exhibit called “Journey to Churchill” featuring polar bears and other animals found in Northern Manitoba. You can go below the water and watch the polar bears swim above you through thick glass like in an aquarium.

A photo of a polar bear swimming behind glass at the Assiniboine Park Zoo, one of the best things to do in Winnipeg
Photo Credit: Travel Manitoba

My favourite place to de-stress is the English Garden at Assiniboine Park. This has several walking paths meandering through gorgeous flower gardens and huge trees. It’s located between the impressive Leo Mol Sculpture Garden and the lovely and tranquil Duck Pond.

The Assiniboine Park Pavilion looks like a Bavarian lodge and contains the largest collection of works by famous Manitoba artists including Ivan Eyre. It’s also home to a fascinating exhibit about a small bear that was brought to England by a Winnipeg veterinarian during the First World War. This bear inspired A.A. Milne to create Winnie the Pooh.  

The park has a big, modern natural playground. There’s also a miniature steam train for families with younger children. On winter days, you can slide down a hill on toboggans or sleds and ice skate on the Duck Pond. 

Drop by the Royal Canadian Mint

The Royal Canadian Mint in Winnipeg is one of only two money-producing facilities in Canada. The sail-shaped, glass-covered building looks like a futuristic work of art. Each year, every one of the billions of Canadian circulation coins is manufactured here. 

The Royal Canadian Mint, one of the most unique things to do in Winnipeg
Photo Credit: Travel Manitoba

Inside, you can pay $8 for a guided tour or take a free self-guided tour of how the coins are made. In the gift shop, you can buy rare and collectible Canadian coins. Security is very tight and, unfortunately, they don’t have free samples. 

Stroll around the Exchange District

The Exchange District is downtown, near Winnipeg City Hall and not far from the famous windy intersection of Portage Avenue and Main Street. The Exchange is a Canadian national historic site of 150 protected heritage buildings built in the late 1800s. Several big-budget productions have used it as a movie set in the past. 

Old Market Square offers the Cube, one of the most unique things to do in Winnipeg

A centrepiece of the Exchange District is Old Market Square. This has a unique stage called “The Cube.” Old Market Square hosts many concerts and summer festivals, such as Folklorama, the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival, and the Winnipeg Jazz Festival.

The Exchange District is a hub for a multitude of local businesses and associations. Winnipeg artists and technology companies have set up residence in the Exchange. Furthermore, some interesting and cool cafes are located in the Exchange, including Forth, Parlour, and Across the Board Game Cafe.

For a tasty bite to eat and one of the best things to do in Winnipeg, visit Peasant Cookery

For a great meal in the Exchange, order the mussels and charcuterie board at Peasant Cookery. You can also sample Dutch-inspired gourmet menu items at Amsterdam Tea Room. During events, you will find numerous local food trucks parked beside Old Market Square. 

There are plenty of things to do in Winnipeg, Manitoba!
Photo Credit: Travel Manitoba

Kevin Strong is a Canadian travel and tourism writer based out of Winnipeg, Manitoba. He specializes in writing about slow travel with the older tourist very much in mind. Kevin is the creative genius behind the Retirestyle Travel website.

Five Reasons to Visit Zanzibar

 

Anyone ever heard of Unguja? How about the island’s more common name, Zanzibar? It’s known as the Spice Island as well as the birthplace of Freddy Mercury. An Indian Ocean archipelago off the coast of Tanzania, Africa, it’s also a diving and snorkeling mecca. Here are five reasons to visit Zanzibar. 

Five Reasons to Visit Zanzibar

Reef Diving,  Snorkeling, Surfing

A coral reef runs along most of the ocean side of Zanzibar for about a mile offshore. Levan Bank, off the northern tip, is one of the island’s most famous and impressive dive sites. There, you can see huge kingfish and impressive tuna. Inside the reef, the waters are calm and crystal clear. When the tide goes out, you can actually walk from the beach to the reef. According to many professional divers, Zanzibar offers some of the best dive sites in Africa, and possibly the world. 

The Beach - one of the best reasons to visit Zanzibar

There are official and unofficial guides who can take you diving or snorkeling, depending on what you want to spend or what type of boat you’re looking for. Seeing some of the rickety wooden boats along the beach may send you in the direction of a resort that offers more professional services. If getting up close and personal with scaly fishy friends isn’t your style, Paje, further south, offers pristine beaches and some of the best kite surfing anywhere. 

The Spice Island

Zanzibar has an abundance of spices, and therefore, an abundance of spice tours! They’re not only informative but an interesting distraction from the beach, where you can explore small villages set right in the jungle, and see first hand how exotic spices are grown and harvested for sale. You get to sample cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and black pepper that are plucked right from trees and shrubs growing all around you. Local guides encourage you to smell and/or taste the indigenous spices. 

A photo of the tour guide of Ed and his wife's spice tour showing off one of Zanzibar's spices.

Retreating under the thick jungle canopy, the spice tour was a nice escape from the 90°F heat. About halfway through the tour, they offered a cornucopia of fresh local fruit. Local guides receive training at a young age on how to climb trees and harvest spices. They make their village huts out of nothing more than grass and mud. Using hammocks for beds, furnishings remain simple and sparse.

Giant Tortoises

We took a leisurely three-mile boat trip to Prison Island (Changu) from Stone Town, the main port and largest city on Zanzibar. The trip was relaxing. Our arrival at the beach pier offered the most amazing shades of blue I’ve ever seen. The locals have opened the prison, once hell on earth for rebellious slaves incarcerated in the 1860s, for public tours. The island has also functioned as a coral mine in the past. Despite its grim history, Changu remains in the top five reasons to visit Zanzibar.

The main attraction of Prison Island is the gigantic tortoises. Some weigh up to 500 pounds, live until 150 years of age, and are about the size of a Smart Car. At one time, there were as many as 200 of the unique creatures, but now there are about 50. Since Zanzibar has become a world heritage site, the tortoises have been offered protection from theft and poaching. 

The Masai and Freddy Mercury

Whether it’s on the beach or in Stone Town, you’ll surely notice the people of Zanzibar come from a variety of backgrounds. We saw Muslims in robes and hijabs, native Swahili, and Masai in their traditional red Shuka. No matter their religion or heritage, the people were welcoming and friendly. Many of the tourists are European, with some flocking to the upscale Italian-focused resorts. 

Zanzibar is like any other exotic tourist destination, with people trying to sell their wares on the street or beach. Fortunately, street sellers were nowhere as bothersome or persistent as some we’ve encountered elsewhere. There is a colorful market in Stone Town, offering all kinds of fresh produce and seafood. If that’s not good enough, you can buy fresh fish and octopus right on the beach from the fishermen who caught it. 

Stone Town

We stayed in Stone Town for a night, hoping to explore as much as we could. Unfortunately, even with a city map, we found the narrow and winding streets confusing. The personal tour we booked was the way to go. We saw and experienced so much more, and our guide explained things that we had no idea about. For dinner, we sought out Mercury’s, a beachfront restaurant with an awesome sunset view. The kitchen is an open-pit barbeque, and there are autographed photos from Freddy Mercury and Queen on the walls. 

A photo of Stone Town

The stone architecture pays tribute to the town’s name, and buildings have taken on a lichen-stained patina that shows how gracefully they’ve aged. There is no room for cars on the inner-city streets. They are more like alleys or sidewalks, where everything has to be carried in or on wooden carts. Beware of some locals who buzz through the cobbled maze on motor scooters. 

The Beaches

Try to imagine what your favorite beach looked like before it was invaded by massive resorts and the throngs of tourists that come with them. That is what the deserted beaches of Zanzibar offer. Miles of white sand with swaying palm trees on one side and turquoise water on the other. The northeast beaches of Nungwi, Kendwa, Pwani, Waikiki, and Kiwengwa were some of the prettiest that we’ve visited anywhere. 

There are a handful of resorts on the island that exist mostly on the north end. Nonetheless, you’ll find more fishermen and wayward cows on the beach than noisy jet skis or other pleasure craft. Small sailboats are more the norm. We stayed in an AirBnB and ate most of our meals in, but found plenty to eat and drink by visiting the mom-and-pop restaurants scattered along the beach. 

When not cooking at home, we found ourselves strolling down the beach for fresh homemade dinners, rather than taking a taxi down the road. Outdoor restaurants and patios can be nice, but they can’t compare to sipping cocktails in a shaded beach restaurant, listening to the waves roll in, and watching the moon rise over the ocean. 

Friendly Locals, Beautiful Locale

In conclusion, we found Zanzibar to be one of the most interesting places we’ve ever visited. We consider it quite safe and Cathryn walked to the beach and local village for groceries by herself. She worried when one local man followed her around the village, but it turned out he was only there to protect her and help carry things. 

The man even helped me carry a five-gallon jug of water all the way home. You’d think I gave him 100 dollars when I tipped him a buck. Not being resort people, we stayed in the Kamili View Apartments in Kiwengwa, a gated complex with a beautiful swimming pool. Our second-floor unit offered ocean views and breezes.

The Gagnon's AirBnb Pool

I don’t pick favorites and rarely return to places I’ve visited, but Zanzibar is one destination that both Cathryn and I agree we’d definitely return to. These five reasons to visit Zanzibar represent a short summary that doesn’t give this beautiful island justice. Book the trip and see for yourself.

If you enjoyed this article and wish to read more of Ed’s adventures check out my website at www.edmondgagnon.com.

Kompong Phluk, Cambodia: Village On and In the Lake

Michael CarterBy Michael Carter

Remember your school days when part of the year you would walk to school and climb a towering set of stairs to the entrance, and the remainder of the year would row there in a boat right up to the doorstep? No? Then perhaps you didn’t grow up in Kompong Phluk, Cambodia.

Where is Kompong Phluk, Cambodia?

Many often call Siem Reap “Temple Town” because of its proximity to Angkor Wat. Kompong Phluk, makes for an interesting day trip from Siem Reap. It lies just 16 km away from Temple Town, although the meandering road makes the trip closer to 31 km. It is actually a collection of three floating villages by the Tonlé Sap Lake. The Tonlé Sap River fills and empties into the Tonlé Sap Lake, depending on the time of year. The Tonlé Sap is a UNESCO biosphere reserve, thanks to its unique plant species, fish, and animals, many of which are listed as endangered. Close to 4,000 people call Thnot Kambot, Dhei  Krahom, and Koh Kdol — the three villages of Kompong Phluk — their home. Severe flooding is not uncommon during the rainy season, but for the denizens of Kompong Phluk, Cambodia, it is an annual expectation.

A photo of a building in Kompong Phluk during the dry season

How Do the Locals Survive?

Kompong Phluk translates roughly as Harbour of the Tusks. The community sits high on stilts averaging six metres high. During the wet season months, from May to late October, the denizens rely on fishing. This includes river shrimp and the slightly larger river lobster — which is nothing like the ocean lobster I loved so much in Canada. With the change of the season in November, the water flow reverses and begins receding. Basic farming supplements the fish shortage. Villagers erect temporary shacks by the lake to accommodate the new (and temporary) agricultural activity.

With Siem Reap and the nearby Angkor temples attracting tourists, curious visitors are increasingly making trips to Kompong Phluk. This relatively new site made its way onto the tourist trail within the past couple of decades.

Kompong Phluk’s Flooded Forest

At about 6,000 hectares, locals refer to the largest mangrove forest in the area as the flooded forest. For a donation of around $5 US, local women will paddle you throughout the mangrove in their small boats. With this proving to be another source of income for the residents, the mangrove forest has a good chance of remaining intact, a blessing for both the village residents and people around the world.

A Helpful Donation or a Scam?

I think most travellers like to help add to the places they visit in some way. Despite that,they don’t want to feel they are being scammed. I think it is always one of the greatest dilemmas a traveller can face.

There is no shortage of children in Kompong Phluk. Like most Cambodian people, I find them to be very photogenic. They love slipping into your photographs. Unlike many of the street beggars I have encountered in larger cities, these kids attempt to use their smiles to entice you to purchase basic school supplies for them, such as notebooks and pencils. I curiously witnessed the process and it became rather apparent that these supplies had been bought and sold before. Meaning that they get you to buy the book and invite you to their classroom and then await the next generous group to come along.

An Educator’s View

It was a real dichotomy for me as I have worked in education for over two decades. Furthermore, I’ve lived in Cambodia since 2007, so I’m more familiar with mischievous Cambodian school children than the average tourist. I watched as two western women bought supplies and I accompanied them up the stilted stairway to a large classroom filled with happy, smiling faces. The kids seemed truly grateful and I questioned myself for doubting — perhaps even knowing — that their opportunistic mothers may have put them up to all of this.

A photo of the tourist and Kompong Phluk, Cambodia children

I suppose that if you go to Kompong Phluk, Cambodia someday and encounter this situation, you will have to allow your own feelings to guide you.

All about Michael

We first met Michael Carter back in January 2020 when he was interviewed by close friend and fellow Dreams Abroad contributor, Edmond Gagnon. Michael has since gone on to pen his very own articles for our site. These have seen him recount visiting some of his favourite places in Asia such as Vietnam’s Con Dao Islands as well as those on the other side of the world like Havana, Cuba. We can’t wait to see what more Michael has to share!

Massachusetts’ Capital: Things to Do in Boston

edmond gagnonIf you are reading this, you’re probably bored and afflicted with the same disease that I’ve had since the pandemic lockdown. Wanderlust is a powerful ailment that causes itchy feet, strong cravings, and a yearning to get out and go anywhere. But in today’s COVID-infected world, our travel destinations are limited. Where can you go?

Explore your own country. Look around the state, province, or city nearby and pick a destination that you can travel to in the safety of your own vehicle. For those of you in the USA, check out some things to do in Boston. It’s the capital city of Massachusetts and sits on the Atlantic seaboard. The city is also reachable by air or rail if you’re looking for alternate means of transport (pursue those at your own risk). Make sure to check for any travel restrictions before heading out on your adventure.

Things to Do in Boston

Delve into the History of the City

Boston is a city of firsts. The city built Boston Common, the US’ first city park in 1634. In 1635, the first public school in America opened, the Boston Latin School. After that, Boston built the first subway in 1897. Other firsts include the first inoculation, first telephone, and more. Born of the original New England colonies, it’s steeped in history and home to some of the country’s most important forefathers. Charles River outlines the city proper, which backs up against Boston Harbor. 

When exploring a new city on foot, my wife and I like to stay in the old city center, if possible. The historic Omni Parker House is upscale and expensive, but we snagged a special rate that suited our budget. We saved a lot of taxi fare by staying in a central location. Additionally, a very helpful hotel concierge gave us invaluable tips and made tour bookings for us. 

Go Downtown

Boston has taken a unique approach to helping tourists discover their city. They offer several free walking tours that explore the historic downtown and harborfront. Explorers get a map outlining several different trails to follow, depending on what you want to see. Each trail is marked by a different color line marked on the pavement, and all you have to do is follow the yellow brick road. 

We took the Freedom Trail and started at the Beantown Pub. Best to stay hydrated. And it’s the only place in town where you can drink Sam Adams and stare at his grave directly across the street. Being team players, we did both, then wandered through the graveyard continuing our tour. We wore off the beer on foot, ogling centuries-old buildings and exquisite architecture. The Boston Public Library’s Central Library in Copeland Square was something to see, especially the cavernous study room inside. 

 

Downtown is shouldered by the Boston Harbor, made famous by the Boston Tea Party, where American colonists protesting British taxes dumped crates of tea into the bay. If you’re looking for things to do in Boston, this stop should be at the top of your list. We strolled the scenic boardwalk connecting various wharves and restaurants that have been built into old warehouses. Fancy hotels with harbor-view patios and new condos offer sea views. 

A photo of a heavy iron fence post holding up a metal chain rope in front of sailboats in the Boston Harbor, a must-see when looking for things to do in Boston.

Tuck into Fresh Seafood and Wash it Down with Beer

Across the street from the Battery Wharf Hotel on Atlantic Avenue, we found a cool little beer garden that was neatly tucked into a city parkette. I ordered a couple pints of beer to quench our thirst and a homemade pretzel to nibble on. Still hungry, Cathryn found a place nearby that served up the best Lobster Roll we’ve ever had. Boston looked pretty awesome to us from our vantage point on the street corner. The cold beer and fresh lobster may have had something to do with it.

A photo of a lobster roll.

At least once in every place we visit, we treat ourselves to a nice meal. While exploring Long Wharf on the harborfront, we discovered a restaurant called the Chart House. Housed in the wharf’s oldest surviving structure, the John Hancock Counting House, the restaurant unquestionably capitalizes on its history. The brick and stone buildings have been beautifully restored. There is a cute patio that offers great views, but we chose to make dinner reservations and return later.  

The exposed wood beams, brick, and stone interior of the restaurant offers olde-worlde charm. Soft lighting and nautical decor enhanced the mysterious romance of the Atlantic Ocean. We shared fresh-made crab cakes served with corn relish. Cathryn had lobster bisque and stuffed salmon that she found a tad overcooked for her liking. I love seafood but chose a thick and juicy slab of prime rib. The menu was pricey but the food was delicious and the atmosphere stellar.  

Enjoy Park Life and Al Fresco Malls

We’d seen Boston Common while on the bus and decided to take a stroll through it on our way back to our hotel. It’s a beautiful park, consisting of fifty acres in the middle of the city. From its scenic bridges, one can usually spot swan boats in one of the many small lakes. There are public gardens, the New England Aquarium, and a museum that includes Boston Tea Party Ships. Tons of green space and picnic areas make it the perfect city oasis. This is another “can’t-miss” of things to do in Boston.

A photo of the Boston Commons, one of the cool things to do in Boston.

With our feet getting undeniably tender, we took a hop-on-hop-off tour that included a water ride on one of those silly-looking duck boats. The open-top bus offered fantastic views of the city that were a bit further out, and the boat tour gave us surprising views of the harbor and city skyline from the water. We planned a special stop at the end of our bus tour, hopping off at Cheers, the film location of the hit TV show. I’d hoped to share a beer with Norm, but he wasn’t there. 

 

If you’re looking for a cool outdoor pedestrian mall, check out Quincy Market. Blocks of closed streets line themselves with unique shops, bars, and restaurants. You can spend hours wandering the area and not see everything it has to offer. It’s a great place to check out if you’re looking for things to do in Boston. If you are a baseball fan, you have to see Fenway Park, one of the only remaining original ballparks still standing, and home to the Boston Red Sox since 1912. Professional hockey and basketball also have a base in Boston in the guise of the Boston Bruins and the Boston Celtics. For a somber moment, visit the site of the Boston Marathon bombing. You can clearly see the race’s finish line marked on the pavement. 

Explore the Shore of Massachusetts

If you get bored or don’t find enough things to do in Boston, or are looking for a secluded ocean-front beach, Cape Cod is less than two hours away by car. That was our next stop on this east coast trip. There are neat little towns to see along the coastal road and Provincetown is a totally cool place to kick back and enjoy the sun, sand, and sea. 

If you enjoyed this article, please check out other travel stories on my personal website at www.edmondgagnon.com.

Barefoot in Belize: A Trip to Caye Caulker

Are you looking for a vacation destination where you can live in your bathing suit and flip-flops, with no cars or trucks allowed? Have you ever seen signs posted that say, ‘No shirt, No shoes, No problem’? Caye Caulker, Belize, is that kind of place. In this two-part post, I’ll tell you why you should visit Belize and other sites in the area. 

Visit Caye Caulker, Belize

This limestone coral island is just off of mainland Belize in the Caribbean Sea. A forty-five-minute boat ride from Belize City, my first impression of the village was that it was built with a fluorescent-colored Lego set. The turquoise water, white sand, and swaying palm trees announced that I’d arrived in paradise.  

Because the island is five miles long and about a half-mile wide, you can actually see one side from the other. Golf carts and bicycles are for rent, but you can easily cover the inhabited part of the island barefoot or in flip-flops. The island has a small airport for those who wish to fly. Caye Caulker is laid back and the perfect place to veg, but there are lots of things to see and do.

Lazy Lizard Beach Bar, Belize

The Split

The main beach is called The Split, aptly named after a hurricane ripped through the island, severing it in two. The Lazy Lizard Beach Bar is the place to see and be seen at the Split. They offer cold drinks, good food, picnic tables right in the water, and a great view from the upper deck. Gazing out to sea, you’ll discover shades of blue that defy description. 

Accommodations on Caye Caulker range from a simple one-room ocean-front bungalow on stilts to upscale condos with amazing sea views and amenities like pools and beachfront bars. Short and long-term rentals can be found through VRBO and Airbnb. There are some places where you can step off your porch and into the ocean. 

The Split, Belize

With the exception of coconuts and some tropical fruit, food has to be imported onto the island. Fortunately, there is no reason to go hungry with everything from pizza and burgers to pasta and steak. It’s a seafood haven, and lobster is abundant (when in season). We found lobster at beachside barbeques and restaurants, grilled, baked, or put into things, like fritters and salads. Our favorite was the lobster nachos. 

The ocean side of Caye Caulker is protected by a barrier reef. It is a diving and snorkeling mecca, and, according to some, is only second to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. The half-day snorkel trip was our best underwater experience ever, bar none. We saw giant sea turtles and stingrays, all sorts of colorful fish, and even got to pet an eight-foot nurse shark. There are a handful of dive shops in the village, offering snorkeling, diving, and fishing packages. 

Pops’ Fishing Charter

Belize was the first big trip that Cathryn and I took together so I wanted to do something special. I booked a fishing charter with a local guy named Pops. Not the one-eyed peg-legged pirate we expected, the handsome young man offered an afternoon of fishing, quickly followed by a trip to his family island, where he prepared us dinner. Cathryn landed two barracuda. While Pops hoped to add lobster to the menu, his traps didn’t offer any of appropriate size. 

Pops’ island was nothing more than a sand spit two miles off-shore, with a coconut tree in the middle and mangroves at one end. Island security greeted us at the dock — five mixed-breed dogs who were all happy to see Pops, and quickly warmed to us. They lived on the island, keeping an eye on things when dad wasn’t around. 

Boat in Caye Caulker

We made quick work of exploring the island, which was less than the length of a football field and barely wide enough to support a game of horseshoes. The only buildings were a bunkhouse, work shack, and an outdoor kitchen, powered by a homemade solar and wind system. Taking it all in, I had to wonder if my surprise to Cathryn was a good idea — I’d made arrangements with Pops to spend the night there by ourselves. 

Fresh Catch for Dinner

Spike, the pit bull and head of security, stood guard on the end of the dock while our host cleaned our fresh catch. It was awesome and scary at the same time when a nurse shark showed up for the tasty scraps. What happened next is something I would never have believed if I didn’t see it for myself. Spike lunged from the pier onto the sharks back, sending it into a frenzy, splashing us with seawater. Pops laughed. Apparently, Spike didn’t like sharks. 

Our host made us fresh salsa from scratch as an appetizer. While we snacked, he started a fire with coconut husks and filleted one fish and cut the other into steaks. He marinated one and fried the other. It was an amazing meal. Pops left us food for breakfast and said he’d be back by noon the next day. With the nearest person and/or phone two miles away by water, I figured the only danger would be pirates or a freak storm. 

I went to the outhouse after Pops disappeared on the horizon. It was typical of the old outdoor structures I’d used before, with one distinct difference. It was built on stilts in the water, and only accessible by walking a wooden plank. Flushing was taken care of by Mother Nature. When I stepped off the plank, I saw Cathryn wearing nothing but a smile. Moby was playing over Pops’ sound system. 

 

True Paradise

Like Adam and Eve, we sat in our personal paradise watching the millions of stars in the Milky Way appear like twinkle lights on a giant black velvet canvas. It was the most amazing display I’ve ever witnessed. Our minds melded with the sounds of Pink Floyd, aided by a mixture of wacky tobacky that our host had left us. Life was contemplated, and in that moment, we were one with the universe. 

We spent the night in the bunkhouse, with an ocean breeze blowing through the open windows. The puppy we named Blue curled up on the floor beside our bed. Spike took his job seriously, and slept on the top porch step, blocking entry to our door. He was one of a kind. When we went for a swim the next morning, he acted as shark patrol and swam in circles around us. 

We spent a month on Caye Caulker, but traveled to Ambergris Caye and mainland Belize for cave tubing. We also visited Guatemala to see the Mayan ruins at Tikal. Check out part two of our trip to Belize for the rest of our adventure. 

If you want to read about any of my southeast Asian adventures take a look at the travel section of my website at www.edmondgagnon.com.

by Edmond Gagnon

Air Batang: A Tioman Tale Part Two

Michael CarterRead about Michael’s arrival to Pulau Tioman in his last article.

Air Batang, Pulau Tioman, Malaysia

After spending a couple of days in Salang, I caught a water taxi a short distance south along the coast to Air Batang, Pulau Toman, Malaysia. I stayed in a bungalow by the shore at Nazri’s. It had a fantastic sea view and sounds of the surf to lull me to sleep at night. I was a 10-minute walk from the Air Batang jetty and a 50-minute walk to the largest village on the island, Kampang Tekek. Like Salang, there were no roads, only pathways. After just a 3-minute walk from my bungalow, I found Ray’s Dive Adventure. Ray’s became my closest depot for beer, sunsets, and star-gazing at night.

My bungalow at Nazri's in Air Batang.I started suffering from a chronic condition known as IPI (Island Pace Inertia). No matter which island in the world one travels to, that traveler eventually succumbs to IPI. In my case, it took about five minutes for the condition to afflict me.

As I was still on the northwest side of the island, I had come to accept that I wouldn’t have time to see nearly as much of the island as I originally thought. Wanting to explore a bit more, I considered taking a day-trip out of Tekek. I thought about going on a 4-wheel drive tour for a day. As the largest city on the island, Tekek actually does have a road. There’s one leading to the east side of the island. Alas, the tour required a minimum of four passengers, and no one else had signed up. I decided to rent a bicycle instead, and pedal my butt around Air Batang and into Tekek. This turned out to be a great decision.

Mother NatureOther than by foot, my primary mode of transportation.

I cycled along the coast and made numerous stops to gaze into the crystal clear water below. I saw plenty of marine life species without donning a mask and snorkel, which thrilled me I managed to rip off a large toenail earlier in the trip and water activities would have only aggravated it. 

Tioman seemed to have more cats than people, but for lovers of slightly wilder life, there was a plethora of free-roaming creatures. Countless colourful birds, butterflies, and playful monkeys. Lovers of lizards and things that slither would be in heaven here. Monitor lizards ambled along the pathways everywhere. It seemed like every time I glanced up into the tree branches, I caught a glimpse of a python lazing away.

The Tiong,  a reddish-orange bird with a bright yellow beak and white trim on its wing, has become a symbol of Tioman. So much so, that a large statue of a Tiong is erected in a Tekek park.

The Tiong Statue in Tekek.

Last Hurrah in Tekek

Air Batang was my comfort zone, but I cycled in all directions daily. I happened upon a place near the end of the marine park jetty called Go Deeper. It had a modernistic, yet funky, decor. The food was crap but the beer was ice cold, and the cheapest I had come across on the island. I sort of liked the place and decided to move from my bungalow in Air Batang to Go Deeper for my last night. The lodgings were more expensive than Nazri’s, but they offered me a free bicycle to use and free transportation in a sidecar to the early-morning ferry at the jetty in Tekek, which was four kilometers away. 

The beach at Air Batang

The rooms were refurbished cylindrical-drainage-pipes-turned-hotel-rooms with air-conditioning, plus a private bathroom behind. It seemed ideal for a final night.

I had neglected to bring a travel alarm with me, so I was at the mercy of the Go Deeper staff to wake me up at 6:00am, so I could shower and leave by sidecar to the jetty in time to catch the 7:00am ferry. I had already purchased an open ticket, but still needed to arrive in time to exchange it for a boarding pass.

A picture of the refurbished cylindrical rooms at Go Deeper in Air Batang.

An Early Morning

Tioman is a duty-free zone. Notably, I still had one bottle of wine left from my purchase at the Tekek Duty-Free Centre. For my final Tioman night, I cocooned myself into my cozy drainage pipe and liberated the cork from my last bottle of wine. Fond memories of the island flashed back through my mind, but I was afraid to fall asleep. Past experience taught me never to rely on ‘wake-up’ calls or services.

The Go Deeper Hotel, at the foot of the Marine Park jetty.

Nonetheless, the wine gods insisted otherwise, and I was lights out before even finishing the bottle.

The call of nature woke me up at some unknown time. After peering outside and seeing black, I had no real idea of the time. It could have been 2:00am or 6:00am. I remembered that the bar/reception area had a large-faced clock, which was easily visible because three sides of the eating area were open-air. I figured it made sense to leave my room and make the 45-second walk to check the time. It was pitch black all around, with a tiny sliver of a moon barely illuminating my path. There was just enough natural starlight to make out the time. Although looking at the clock almost seemed like looking through a pair of eyeglasses made of bubble wrap, I hazily deciphered the time. It was 4:30am.

Nightfall in Air Batang

Trust the Wake-Up Call

With just an hour-and-a-half left, I felt too afraid to go back to sleep and risk not getting up in time. I still didn’t have faith in receiving the wake-up knock-knock. Besides, I had about a third of a bottle of wine to polish off before departure anyway. Ahhh — I had ninety minutes or so to relax and sip on some coffee. Elysium.

The view from the front of my bungalow at Air Batang

It seemed like only a few minutes — and it was — had gone by when I heard a tap-tap on my glass door. My 6:00am wake-up call had arrived, along with my sidecar driver waiting for me when I was ready. My clock-reading skills must have failed me. More than likely, I had woken up around 5:30 instead of the perceived 4:30.

I forfeited my morning shower in order to finish the wine at a respectable pace and made it to the jetty on time.

by Michael Carter